Jean Mayer

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Jean Mayer

Recognized as one of the world's foremost nutritionists, Jean Mayer (1920-1993) was a researcher, university professor, presidential adviser, consultant to government and international organizations, and president and subsequently chancellor of Tufts University.

Anaturalized citizen, Mayer was born in Paris, France, on February 19, 1920. The older of two children, he was the son of Andréand Jeanne Eugenie Mayer, both physiologists. His father, a president of the French Academy of Medicine and member of the League of Nations Commission on Hunger, later played an important role in founding the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). During Jean's youth conversations at home often centered on hunger and malnutrition, as well as on the subject of physiology.

After completing his secondary education, Jean enrolled in the University of Paris, where he was awarded a B.Litt. degree (1937), B.S. (1938), and M.Sc. (1939). A visit to the United States and Harvard University in the summer of 1939 impressed Mayer greatly and ultimately influenced him to leave his homeland.

Taken Prisoner During WWII

The outbreak of World War II forced postponement of his plans, for he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the French army. Although captured by German troops in 1940 and taken to a prison camp, Mayer escaped by shooting a guard. He served in the French underground and later fought with the Free French and Allied forces in France, Italy, and North Africa. He was the recipient of 14 military decorations, including the Croix de Guerre with gold star, bronze star, and two palms and the Resistance Medal.

During the war Mayer travelled with forged papers to the United States and there married Bostonian Elizabeth Van Huysen on March 16, 1942. He was the father of five children—André, Laura, John-Paul, Theodore, and Pierre.

Advocated Use of Exercise in Weight Control

After the war he studied at Yale University, wrote a dissertation on vitamin A, and obtained his Ph.D. in physiological chemistry in 1948. He also attended the Sorbonne, where he was awarded a D.Sc. in physiology summa cum laude in 1950. Thereafter began a long association with Harvard University which commenced in 1950 as an assistant professor of nutrition and which saw him promoted through the ranks to full professor in 1965. As a researcher who studied obesity, the physiological controls on hunger, and the relationship to disease, Mayer also became a strong advocate of physical exercise and promoted its benefits in weight control and the maintenance of good health.

Crusaded Against World Hunger

Of equal concern to Mayer was the problem of a lack of food and its companions—hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. He studied ways to alleviate famine and its consequences on Harvard missions to India in 1955 and to Ghana in 1961; was a member of United Nations FAOWHO (World Health Organization) advisory missions to Ghana in 1959 and to the Ivory Coast and West Africa in 1960; and in 1969 he went to Biafra, Nigeria.

In 1967 Mayer joined the U.S. Citizen's Crusade Against Poverty and later helped to found the National Council on Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States, becoming its first chairman in 1969. He played a role in calling the nation's attention to the nutritional problems of the poor in America and testified on these problems before congressional committees.

During the 1960s the problems of poverty and hunger received wide public attention which resulted in President Richard Nixon appointing Mayer as his special consultant on nutrition in 1969. His task was to plan and direct the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. Opening on December 2, 1969, the three-day conference was addressed by Nixon, who pledged to eliminate hunger in the United States. Among the 3,000 invited guests were scientists, food processors, government representatives, civil rights leaders, medical personnel, consumer representatives, and spokespersons for the poor. Disgruntled representatives of the poor, whose priorities differed from those of other guests, held separate sessions of their own. But Mayer claimed the conference was a success in dramatizing hunger and poverty to the press and all segments of society. He is credited with persuading Nixon to include a food stamp program for the poor in his plans for welfare reform and an expanded school lunch program for needy children.

Became President of Tufts University

In 1970 Mayer returned to Harvard's Center for Population Studies, and in July 1976 he became the tenth president of Tufts University. During the 1970s he received presidential and congressional appointments, including appointments to the President's Consumer Advisory Council, 1970-1977; as chairman of the Nutrition Division of the White House Conference on Aging, 1971; as general coordinator of the U.S. Senate National Nutrition Policy Study, 1974; and on the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, 1978-1980. At the United Nations he was a member of the Protein Advisory Group, 1973-1975, and director of the Project on Priorities in Child Nutrition, United Nations International Children's and Educational Fund (UNICEF), 1973-1975.

In 1989, then President Bush bestowed Mayer with the Presidential End Hunger Award. In presenting the award to Mayer, President Bush said, "The goal of ending hunger requires involvement, and Jean Mayer is an example of the rare breed on individual who has never hesitated to get involved when he saw a need." Mayer later was also given another Presidential award by Bush for his environmental and conservation work.

On September 1, 1992, Mayer became the Chancellor of Tufts University. During his 16 years of tenure as President of Tufts, he was credited with the creation of a graduate school of nutrition and building the only veterinary medicine school in New England. A center for environmental management was also established during his tenure as president. Mayer died of a heart attack in Sarasota, Florida on January 1, 1993 while vacationing.

Researched Mechanisms of Obesity

Mayer was known for his research on mechanisms regulating food intake and the development of experimental and human obesities. He published approximately 750 scientific papers, as well as numerous articles for the public in popular magazines. His books include Overweight: Causes, Cost, and Control (1968), Human Nutrition (1972), A Nutrition Glossary (1973), U.S. Nutrition Policies in the Seventies (1973), Health (1974), A Diet for Living (1975), Food and Nutrition in Health and Disease (1977), World Nutrition: A U.S. View (1978), and Food and Nutrition Policy in a Changing World (1979). A syndicated newspaper column on nutrition was published weekly in 150 papers.

Further Reading

Biographies appear in American Men & Women of Science (1982) and World Who's Who in Science (1968). Articles appear in LIFE, November 28, 1969; TIME, December 12, 1969; Forbes, October 1969; and New York Times, December 1, 1969. See also the New York Times January 2, 1993. □