While the UW-Madison Department of Nutritional Sciences was officially founded in 1968, research in the field of nutrition can be traced back to the university’s earliest days. UW researchers began exploring nutrition in the late 1800s, with early experiments focused on advancing agriculture and food production from animals, but also touching on aspects of general nutrition. Research by UW scientists led to the discovery of the first vitamins, including vitamin A and two types of vitamin B, and led to the near-eradication of pellegra and beriberi, two nutrient deficiency-related diseases that were common at the time.
From the early days, nutrition researchers could be found in a wide variety of departments across campus. Faculty in the Department of Biochemistry within the College of Agriculture (now CALS) focused on fundamental nutrient-related projects. Faculty in the Department of Home Economics (a non-CALS department) offered courses in food and nutrition, including the university’s first courses in dietetics starting in 1904, and led research studies related to food composition and effects on the diet.
In 1908, The Department of Home Economics was moved to the College of Agriculture, where it remained for 43 years until a major administrative restructuring occurred in 1951. At that time, the home economics department was separated from CALS and became the School of Home Economics (SoHE). As part of this restructuring plan, a Department of Foods and Nutrition was established within SoHE. This department administered the university’s dietetics program and other consumer-focused studies of nutrition for the next 17 years.
Over time, university administrators began to recognize the need for a more focused program centered on the study of human nutrition. To address this need, CALS Dean Glenn Pound initiated a review of the Department of Foods and Nutrition in 1965. The outcome was the establishment of the Department of Nutritional Sciences within CALS in 1968.
The first chair of the department was biochemist Alfred Harper who held the position for 14 years. Faculty members were brought in from across campus, including from the Department of Food and Nutrition, biochemistry, animal sciences and medicine.
At first, the new CALS department stayed put in the Home Economics building. It finally moved into the former Children’s Hospital in 1982, where it remains to this day.
Researchers in the Department of Nutritional Sciences continue in the tradition of their predecessors, helping to advance the scientific community’s understanding of nutrition and nutrition-related illnesses, with the goal of contributing information that helps promote good individual and public health.