Ruth L. Huenemann
Professor of Public Health, Emerita
1910 – 2005
Ruth Huenemann was a pioneer in the field of public health nutrition. She was an extraordinary teacher and researcher, and a role model for her students and colleagues. Her career illustrated both the growth of nutrition as a scholarly field of inquiry in the twentieth century and the important formative role that pioneering academic women played in its development.
Ruth was born on a farm on February 5, 1910, into an industrious family of 14 siblings in rural Iowa and raised in Iowa and Wisconsin. As the second child and the oldest girl, Ruth helped her parents with household chores and the care of younger siblings. She learned to be a skilled cook and a well-organized household manager. In a family memoir of her childhood she described the details of canning and cooking and serving healthy meals at a table set for 15 family members and guests.
About 1920, her father left the farm to become a minister, and the family then moved to a house with electricity and indoor plumbing. Ruth graduated from Menno High School in South Dakota, where her family had moved the previous year. After a six-week certification program, she taught elementary grades in small one-room country schools for several years, including the early years of the depression and the dust bowl. After losing her savings in a bank failure, she managed to save enough money to put herself through college at the University of Wisconsin where she studied dietetics with teachers who were among the early great pioneer nutrition scientists.
In 1941, Ruth completed her master’s degree in dietetics at the University of Chicago as a student of Lydia Roberts. The strength of purpose that led her to college would continue to guide her throughout her career. After five years as a staff dietitian and research nutritionist at the University Hospitals and Clinics in Chicago, she spent 10 years teaching at the University of Tennessee where she and her students created a community nutrition program. Ruth stated that the years in Tennessee were “among the happiest of my life.” They led to an understanding of, and a kinship with, the local people whom she served there.
To further her career, Ruth undertook a doctoral program at Harvard University’s School of Public Health. She spent 14 months in Peru surveying nutrition and child care practices for her dissertation. During her later career she traveled to several Latin American countries to conduct nutrition surveys and workshops and to lecture and conduct curriculum assessment in schools of nutrition and dietetics. She eventually became a consultant to high level educational, research and service programs and agencies such as the Pan American Health Organization, the United States Department of State’s food aid program, the Unitarian Service Committee, the Institute of Nutrition for Central America and Panama, the Nutrition Institute of Mexico, and the World Health Organization.
After receiving her doctoral degree at Harvard in 1953, Ruth joined the faculty of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. As the first nutritionist on the faculty of the school, she was solely responsible for setting up a curriculum in public health nutrition, developing a research program, obtaining grant money, and building a faculty. In her first class at Berkeley, there were only two students majoring in public health nutrition. In her last class there were 36, and by the time Ruth retired the school had awarded almost 300 master of public health degrees in nutrition. The program she developed became the preeminent center for training applied nutritionists in the U.S. She also created the first program to enable students earning a master’s degree in public health nutrition to be eligible to become registered dietitians, a model that was followed by other programs nationwide.
Ruth served as chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Natural Resources, as chair of Social and Administrative Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, and as director of the public health nutrition program. She also held offices in local, state, and national dietetic associations and was a strong force in the Association of the Faculties of Graduate Programs in Public Health Nutrition. She was one of the founders of the Society for Nutrition Education. For her many contributions she was presented with the highest award of the California Dietetic Association and was honored for her professional contributions by the American Dietetic Association. It is notable that the two programs in applied nutrition that she created, in Tennessee and Berkeley, are still recognized for their leadership more than 50 years later.
While she took on administrative responsibilities, Ruth continued her teaching and research. She was particularly noted for her longitudinal studies of nutrition and physical activity among adolescents and children. In the Berkeley Teenage Study (1961-1965), she studied nearly 1,000 students from the Berkeley Unified School District to determine the onset and prevalence of factors related to the development of adult obesity. A surprising finding was that students were already obese by early adolescence. It was this observation that led Ruth to her next longitudinal obesity study, which she directed until her retirement. The subjects were children from the age of six months through sixteen years. Known as the Berkeley Longitudinal Nutrition Study, this research used cutting-edge techniques to provide a wealth of detailed data on children’s eating habits, physical activity, body composition, and perceptions and beliefs regarding health and development. It is considered a landmark study of growth and development that still informs current efforts to understand obesity.
Ruth’s first love, however, was teaching. She was an outstanding teacher who brought uncommonly good and practical sense to her classroom. She imbued her students and colleagues with a profound understanding of the meaning of food in people’s lives, with recognition of the crucial place of nutrition in the total health picture, and with a deep respect for the science of nutrition.
As an educator, she had vision for the training needs of a changing world. Her pioneer spirit and incredibly hard work enabled her to convert her vision into reality. Her graduates served in disparate capacities all over the world in international agencies, ministries of health, local and state health departments, universities, and various other community settings. Ruth was proud of her graduates, especially those who as policy makers have, in her words, “seen to it that people become better fed.”
Ruth’s versatility was notable. Tall and stately in physique, she was a fashion plate whether in the classroom or on a lecture platform. She was an admirable hostess, frequently entertaining faculty and students in her very pleasant Berkeley home. She made time for volunteering at the Berkeley Food Pantry and for UNICEF. Always she was recognized for her integrity, forthrightness, and ready sense of humor. Ruth was a devoted member and elder of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Throughout her life, she was guided by the forces that were most important to her: her family, her church, and her teaching. Ruth Huenemann was a “founding mother” of applied nutrition studies and an inspiration to those who followed her. She became professor emerita in 1977. She died on August 19, 2005, at the age of 95 after a long and productive career. Although Ruth did not have children, she is survived by generations of colleagues and students whom she influenced, as well as by her brother William Huenemann, and numerous nieces and nephews, at least five of whom were named after her.
Z. I. Sabry