Helen Atwater: The First Lady of American Nutrition You’ve Never Heard Of

When I was researching the history of American food guides, I came across one of the earliest resources, “How to Select Foods,” published in 1917 by Hunt and Atwater. At first I assumed that this Atwater was Wilbur Olin Atwater, the man so often heralded as “The Father of American Nutrition.” I was wrong. It was Helen Atwater, and a little digging revealed that she was Wilbur Atwater’s daughter.

As is too often the case with histories of male-dominated fields, Helen Woodard Atwater’s name, story, and contributions are relatively absent from accounts of the early days of American nutrition science. As I began researching, I was glad to find the work of Dr. Melissa Wilmarth, Assistant Professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at the University of Alabama, who wrote her masters thesis on Helen Atwater, later published in an article in Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal.1 On Atwater she concluded: “She was an editor extraordinaire, a leader of leaders, and a model for the 21st century.”

Helen Atwater. (Copyright American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences records/Cornell University Library)

In many ways, Helen Atwater is the first lady of American nutrition, who made her own mark on the world of food, though few know her name.

Born in 1876, Helen’s girlhood unfolded alongside her father’s research in nutrition and agriculture. With the primary family home in Middletown, Connecticut, the Atwaters spent time abroad in Germany and France, as Atwater conducted research and learned new techniques developed by European scientists. Such colleagues often visited the Atwater home. One can imagine a young Helen curiously listening in on her father’s conversations about the energy value of food, economic consumption, and good health. She grew up as Wilbur Atwater headed the Office of Experiment Stations at Wesleyan University. There he conducted experiments with the calorimeter, identifying, for example, the number of calories within different foods, as well as the specific caloric contribution of each macronutrient: carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Despite her interest in nutrition, Helen did not pursue its study in college, as it was a rarity for women to attend university in the late nineteenth century, let alone study science. One of the most esteemed leaders of the domestic science movement, Ellen Richards, was the first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Richards gained entrance in 1870 as a “special student,” a status that demarcated and demoted her within the classroom for her sex. In fact, when Helen pursued higher education in the 1890s, only 2.2% of U.S. women aged 18 to 21 years attended college.2 Perhaps for such reasons, Helen Atwater pursued a degree at Smith College not in science, but in modern languages. She progressed through her studies quickly, graduating in three years in 1897.

Helen Atwater began work after graduation as an editorial and research assistant with her father in his laboratory. She assisted her father in preparing “Principles of Nutrition and the Nutritive Value of Food,” published in 1902 in the USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 142. On her own, she also wrote “Bread and the Principles of Bread Making” in 1900 and “Poultry As Food” in 1903. In “Bread,” she wrote nearly poetically about its ingredients, demonstrating her knowledge of topics that spanned the culinary, scientific, and gastronomic:

Flour, water, a pinch of salt, and a little yeast – the necessary things can be counted on the fingers of one hand, yet one of the few books which describes the processes of bread making with any degree of completeness is a large volume of over 600 pages. It is the purpose of this bulletin to give a brief account of these processes – to describe the raw materials from which the bread is made, and the changes which they undergo in the preparation and baking of the dough, with the significance of each to the quality of the bread and its value as food.3

After Wilbur Atwater suffered a career-ending stroke in 1904, Helen not only cared for him with her mother, but also served as a conduit to his research. During this time, Helen recounted to a relative “the agonizing days when for three years she sat outside her father’s bedroom door making up stories about his experiments at the laboratory to assure him all was going well.”4 Atwater died in 1907. Helen was 28 years old.

“Composition of Food Materials” chart from, Caroline L. Hunt and Helen W. Atwater, “How to Select Foods,” 1917. (US Department of Agriculture/Internet Archive)

After her father’s death, Helen took charge of his papers and later joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Home Economics as a writer and editor, where she worked until 1923. She developed materials for both nutrition professionals and the lay public. In many ways, she was a leader of the home economists who Laura Shapiro chronicled in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century — women who brought Wilbur Atwater’s research findings to life in the kitchen.5 At their fingertips, Shapiro wrote, “Protein, fat, and carbohydrate became categories to be wielded in the assembling of a rational meal.”6 In this regard, Helen Atwater published in 1917 with Caroline Hunt one of the first official American food guides, “How to Select Foods,” which influenced early federal nutrition policy. Atwater also worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.”

Beyond her contributions within the USDA, Helen also served as the first full-time editor of the Journal of Home Economics and worked in the American Home Economics Association for 18 years, from 1923 to 1941. Publishing, editing, and overseeing countless newsletters, articles, pamphlets, and guides, Atwater continually sought to inform the public on nutrition science and how it could influence everyday life. She died in 1947 at the age of 71.

Of all the many resources Helen Atwater published, one of my favorites is “Honey and Its Uses in the Home,” which she published with Caroline Hunt in 1915. In this bulletin, they discussed honey’s chemical composition, nutritive value, and economic cost. They also recounted extensive experiments on the relationship between honey, sugar, and sweetness. Rest assured that honey can be used in place of sugar in cake recipes as long as you reduce the recipe’s liquid (such as milk) by 1/4 cup. Hunt and Atwater also included dozens of recipes. Balancing concerns medical, economic, culinary, nutritional, and pleasurable, they concluded of honey:

Even if honey has no specific medicinal advantages, this does not in the least lesson its general value as a wholesome, useful food-stuff, well worthy of even more extended use than it already has, not only because it is agreeable and economical in itself, but also because it introduces a pleasing variety and thus makes the diet more appetizing, and consequently more wholesome.7

I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on Helen Atwater’s contributions to women’s experiences in higher education, scientific research, and government work — perhaps while also trying her and Hunt’s honey cake from “Honey and Its Uses in the Home.”

Recipes provide yet another source of evidence to examine these histories of women and nutrition science. Oft dismissed as straightforward sets of instructions, recipes instead form rich narratives, tell stories, and elevate voices often silenced or cast aside.8 In short, recipes offer “extraculinary” meaning.9 As a result, reading between the lines of Hunt and Atwater’s clearly worded “Yellow Honey Cake,” tells the story of home economists who boldly occupied an ambivalent position between the perceivably feminine and masculine, private and public, domestic and professional, as they carved out their own space and played significant roles in the history of nutrition.

Yellow Honey Cake

This recipe is reproduced as it appeared in “Honey and Its Uses in the Home,” published in 1915 by Helen Atwater and Caroline Hunt in the United States Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup honey

Directions

  1. Sift together the flour and the spices.
  2. Mix the sugar and egg yolks, add the honey and then the flour gradually.
  3. Roll out thin, moisten the surface with egg white, and mark into small squares.
  4. Bake in a moderate oven (about 350 F).

Notes

  1. Melissa J. Wilmarth and Sharon Y. Nickols, “Helen Woodard Atwater: A Leader of Leaders,” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 41, no. 3 (2013): 314–324. Return to text.
  2. Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1985).
 Return to text.
  3. Helen Atwater, “Bread and the Principles of Bread Making,” USDA Farmers’ Bulletin 112 (1900): 8. Return to text.
  4. Catherine Atwater Galbraith, “Wilbur Olin Atwater,” The Journal of Nutrition 124 (1994): 1715S-1717S. Return to text.
  5. Shapiro, Perfection Salad, 72. Return to text.
  6. Ibid. Return to text.
  7. Caroline Hunt and Helen Atwater, “Honey and Its Uses in the Home,” USDA Farmers’ Bulletin 653 (1915): 8. Return to text.
  8. Anne Bower (editor), Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997). Return to text.
  9. Gayle R. Davis, “Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. By Janet Theophano,” The Journal of American History 90, no. 2 (2003): 617-618. Return to text.

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