Nevin S. Scrimshaw

Nevin Stewart Scrimshaw (born January 20, 1918) is a food scientist and Institute Professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scrimshaw was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His revolutionary accomplishments over six decades in fighting protein, iodine, and iron deficiencies, developing nutritional supplements, educating generations of experts, and building support for continued advances in food quality have made substantial improvements in the lives of millions throughout the world. For this work he won the 1991 World Food Prize.

Early education and work

Scrimshaw earned a doctorate in physiology from Harvard University in 1941 and a medical degree from the University of Rochester four years later. His contributions to human nutrition began during his medical training with his studies of nutrition and pregnancy in Panama. In recognition of this work, Dr. Scrimshaw was asked to establish and lead the Institute of Nutrition of Central American and Panama (INCAP) in Guatemala.

He came to MIT in 1961 as professor of human nutrition and head of a new Department of Nutrition and Food Science. In 1976 he established the International Food and Nutrition Planning Program at MIT, which provided training in nutrition research for scientists in developing countries. In 1980, as Institute Professor, he began research on the functional consequences of iron deficiency and developed methods for getting iron into the diets of people in underdeveloped countries. Today he remains one of the principal advisors to international and national organizations in the field of food and nutrition. He retired from MIT in 1988.

Breakthroughs at INCAP

As founding director from 1949 to 1961, he led the development of this institution from an initial membership of three countries to a regional leader in the prevention of nutritional deficiencies. The Institute today remains a major center for nutrition and food science research, training, and application.

In the 1950s, Dr. Scrimshaw worked toward solutions for kwashiorkor, a deadly disease afflicting young children lacking adequate protein in their diet. Characterized by apathy, anorexia, swelling, blackening of the skin, and rapid hair loss, kwashiorkor affected children throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Typically, children would die of the disease within weeks of diagnosis.

Realizing from studies at INCAP and elsewhere that the protein deficiency developed when breast milk was no longer the sole source of food, Dr. Scrimshaw searched for an alternative protein source available to poor Central American families. At the time, the cost of one protein-rich egg was equivalent to that of a meal for an entire family.


Scrimshaw oversaw the development of INCAPARINA, mainly a mixture of cotton-seed flour and maize, which could be purchased at one-fifth the cost of milk. Today, INCAPARINA is given to 80 percent of Guatemalan children in their first year of life to combat protein deficiency. During the 1966 famine in India, Dr. Scrimshaw guided the development of a similar food, BALAHAR, from peanut flour and wheat. His principle of basing nutrition programs in locally produced, lower-cost foods to ensure the prevention of malnutrition has been reproduced in many developing countries.

Fighting goiter

Also while at INCAP, Scrimshaw focused on endemic Goitre, a result of iodine deficiency. Marked by a swelling of the thyroid gland, it can lead to mental retardation, deafness, and dwarfism in children born to affected mothers. Scrimshaw saw that the North American technique of iodizing salt with water-soluble potassium iodide would be ineffective in developing countries, where salt is a crude product typically sold moist on a palm leaf.

After testing several compounds and consulting with experts, Dr. Scrimshaw developed a method of iodizing moist salt with non-soluble potassium iodate. In trials among school children, for whom goiter prevalence was approximately 60 percent, treatment with either iodide or iodate caused most of their goiters to disappear.

These results prompted Scrimshaw to work with governments of the region to require iodation of all salt for human consumption. At the time of its introduction in Guatemala, national prevalence of endemic goiter was 38 percent. Within two years, it had dropped to 14 percent, and by the third year levels had fallen to virtually zero. Since then, the same process has alleviated endemic goiters in many countries throughout Latin America and the world.

Further international work and teaching

In the 1960s, Dr. Scrimshaw was instrumental in developing broad American support for high-priority research on nutrition problems in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. After visiting Bangladesh and India in 1971, he helped initiate "Operation Beta" to reduce the severe malnourishment among children in refugee camps there.

He is equally accomplished as an educator. In 1961, two years after earning a Harvard M.P.H. degree, Dr. Scrimshaw established the new Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He initiated research in 1981 on the functional consequences of iron deficiency, a field of study that continues to occupy him as coordinator of the Iron Deficiency Project Advisory Service, sponsored by the International Nutrition Foundation – which Dr. Scrimshaw founded in 1982 and continues to lead today.

In 1975, Dr. Scrimshaw initiated and directed the World Hunger Program during the development of the United Nations University, and also directed its successor, the Food, Nutrition, Human and Social Development Programme, from 1981 to 1988. He continues to advise the program and edit its publications. In addition, he has taught at Tufts University since 1987. More than 500 food and nutrition scientists from developing countries have been educated and trained in programs created by Dr. Scrimshaw, helping the poorest areas of the world identify and meet their own most pressing nutritional needs.

Dr. Scrimshaw has written or edited over 20 books and monographs and more than 650 articles on clinical nutrition, nutrition and infection, agricultural and food chemistry, food and nutrition policy, and public health. Dr. Scrimshaw remains a principal advisor to international and national organizations in the field of food and nutrition.

Additional awards

He actually has more awards than he himself remembers, including a knighthood from the King of Thailand for his work in Thailand.

External links

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