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UC Berkeley Press Release

Ruth Huenemann, public health nutrition and childhood obesity expert, dies at 95

– Ruth Lois Huenemann, pioneer in the field of public health nutrition, and professor emerita and founder of the public health nutrition program at the University of California, Berkeley, has died at the age of 95.

Huenemann died Friday, Aug. 19, at the Lake Park Retirement Residence in Oakland.

Ruth Huenemann
Ruth Huenemann (Photo courtesy of the Huenemann family)

Huenemann was one of the first researchers to recognize the importance of systematically studying the longitudinal development of obesity in children, conducting seminal studies that to this day inform the understanding of the current epidemic of childhood obesity.

"She was a legend in her time," said Patricia Crawford, co-director of UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health and one of Huenemann's former students and colleagues. "Students sought out nutrition programs that she created."

Huenemann's research and teaching combined rigorous scientific methods with a pragmatic approach to improving nutrition in a variety of cultural settings. She traveled widely in Latin America, Asia and Europe as a consultant and lecturer for the World Health Organization, the U.S. State Department's food aid program, and numerous international health and nutrition organizations.

She was particularly noted for several longitudinal studies of nutrition and physical activity among adolescents and children. In the Berkeley Teenage Study, she studied nearly 1,000 students from the Berkeley Unified School District from 1961 to 1965 to determine the onset and prevalence of factors related to the development of adult obesity.

She also led the initial four years, from 1969 to 1973, of what would become the Berkeley Longitudinal Nutrition Study, which worked with children from the age of six months through age 16 years. That study was subsequently led by a colleague in the school of public health, Leona Shapiro.

"Research in which such a large group of children was studied for so long was unusual at that time," said Shapiro. "Huenemann looked at the wide-ranging factors that could have influenced the development of obesity."

Her studies provided a wealth of detailed data on teenagers' eating habits, physical activity and body composition. The research revealed a link between low income and an increased risk for obesity, something researchers are still trying to fully understand today.

"That was one of the first studies to show the complex relationship between socioeconomic status and obesity," said Crawford.

The researchers also found that teenagers were getting much less exercise than previously thought, signaling the influence of television and cars, Crawford added.

In addition, the study results dispelled the belief that overweight babies became overweight adults, showing instead that activity level was much more predictive of future weight.

"This research is considered a landmark study of growth and development," said Crawford. "The issue of childhood obesity seems so current now, but imagine what it was like in the 1960s when she sought funding for such studies. She had foresight into a growing problem."

Huenemann was born to a farming family in Waukon, Iowa, on Feb. 5, 1910, the second-oldest of 14 children. In 1913, her father sold the farm and moved the family to Wisconsin, where she grew up.

In 1928, Huenemann graduated from Menno High School in South Dakota, where her family had moved the prior year. She spent five years -- overlapping the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras -- teaching children aged six to 17 in a one-room school, and saving money to attend college.

She received a B.S. in nutrition from the University of Wisconsin in 1938, and earned an M.S. in nutrition from the University of Chicago in 1941 while working as a staff dietitian at the university's clinics. Over the next decade, she worked as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, where she established the university's public health nutrition program as well as a community nutrition program in Knoxville.

During her years at Tennessee, she was offered a scholarship to study at Harvard University and proceeded to earn her doctor of science degree in public health nutrition in 1954. Her dissertation research was on the nutritional health of Peruvian children from birth to three years of age.

She joined UC Berkeley's School of Public Health in 1953, where she founded the school's public health nutrition program, establishing its curriculum, research program, staff and funding.

"In her first class at UC Berkeley, there were only two students who majored in public health nutrition," said Shapiro. "By the time she retired, the school had awarded more than 250 public health degrees in nutrition. The program she developed at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health had become the preeminent center for training of applied nutritionists in the country. By the time she retired in 1977, she had created an enviable record in teaching and research."

Her 24-year tenure at UC Berkeley included terms as chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources, and chair of the Department of Social and Administrative Health Sciences in the School of Public Health.

While at UC Berkeley, she created the first program to enable students earning a bachelor's degree in public health nutrition to also become eligible as registered dietitians. This model has since been emulated in other public health nutrition programs around the country.

Huenemann sat on many notable committees throughout her career, including the National Advisory Council on Child Nutrition and the National Research Council. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, served as president of the Society for Nutrition Education and received the Dolores Nyhus Memorial Award in 1979, the highest honor given by the California Dietetic Association.

After retiring from UC Berkeley, Huenemann accepted invitations as guest lecturer at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Penn. She also volunteered at the Berkeley Food Pantry, for UNICEF, and served as an elder of her church.

Huenemann is survived by her brother, William Huenemann, of Ft. Wayne, Ind.; and dozens of nieces and nephews.

A private memorial service was held Aug. 25 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. Donations in her memory may be made to the Ruth L. Huenemann Scholarship Fund, Office of External Relations, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, 140 Earl Warren Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360; the Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515; or the University of Tennessee/ Ruth Huenemann Fellowship Endowment, Gift Records Office, Knoxville, TN 37996.