“A clipper, a collector, a digger of facts, an organizer with vision. Dr. Nelson left a substantial heritage to the Foods and Nutrition Department.”—Ercel Eppright
Precious Mabel Nelson was raised in California, and attended the University of California at Berkeley, planning to become an English teacher. Due to a shortage of teaching jobs, however, the dean of women encouraged female students to study other fields, including home economics. Nelson heeded the dean’s advice, and became one of the first five students to get her masters degree in the school’s new food and nutrition program in 1916. She received her Ph.D. from Yale in physiological chemistry in 1923, with her dissertation on “The Role of Maternal Diet in the Lactation of the Young,” basing her studies on experiments with white rats.
In the fall of 1923, Nelson accepted an associate professor position at Iowa State with an annual salary of $3500. Three years later she was appointed head of the Foods and Nutrition Department, when the former head, Florence Busse, became engaged.
At Iowa State, Nelson, along with Prof. Laura McLaughlin, continued her rodent experiments, studying the effects of foods with a variety of vitamin contents on rats. She wrote that visitors would be “impressed with the magnitude of the changes shown in the rats physical appearance which follow slight, or seemingly slight, dietary modifications. The coat of hair which is normally soft, silky and even in length on the body of a well nourished rat, becomes harsh, stiff, and uneven in length and literally stands up in a ‘wind blown bob’ effect on the body of the malnourished animal.” She would later use these studies to advocate for the importance of school lunch programs in helping children get the proper amount of vitamins and nutrition.
During Dean Richardson’s tenure (1923-1927), Nelson received two competitive Purnell Research grants, provided by the Purnell Act, to help fund research in state experiment stations. The rural home management committee, which helped identify issues in need of study, had decided that the biggest problems facing rural homemakers were the management of time and energy and the management of income. Nelson, therefore, decided to study homemaker’s use of time, their efficiency, and the food expenditures of families.
In 1932, she almost became embroiled in the great Butter vs. Margarine debate. Coming from California, it took Nelson awhile to become sensitive to many of the issues important to Midwestern farmers. When she was reading a recipe on a radio program and inadvertently stated that listeners could use “butter or a butter substitute,” one Iowa dairy farmer wrote Nelson to complain “mightily” about the comment. Nelson replied to him that “at Iowa State College we advocate the use of butter and in no way countenance the use of oleomargarine as a butter substitute.”
The whole debacle led Iowa State’s President Raymond Hughes to ask about the various forms of fat and oil used in the home economics programs. Dean Genevieve Fisher wrote him a letter, and “He was apparently satisfied to learn that they used Crisco in the rat diets; whereas, butter was fed to the children in the nursery. Institutional management and foods classes used a variety of fats, including butter, but oleomargarine was not among them.” (Click here to read the Dean Fisher’s letter)
Nelson started the department newsletter, also in 1932, and was a regular on the Homemaker’s Half Hour radio program for many years. She also helped initiate the experimental cooking department and co-authored a laboratory manual called “Food Preparation, Principles and Procedures.”
From 1944 to 1952, Nelson was named dean of the home economics department. During her tenure as dean, the faculty rose from 83 to 108, and notable women like Ercel Eppright, Pearl Swanson, and Charlotte Roderuck were hired.
Her most important contribution, however, was the increased prestige she brought the school, thanks to her standard of professionalization and emphasis on research. Robert Buchanan, dean of the Graduate College and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station told Nelson that she had moved home economics, “beyond just criticism of those in some of the older disciplines.”
After retiring from the position of dean, Nelson remained at Iowa State for five more years, teaching and counseling freshman students.