Obituary: Jean Mayer
Saturday 23 January 1993
JEAN MAYER, world-renowned nutritionist and adviser to three US presidents, Nixon, Ford and Carter, faced all challenges with an approach that transcended the immediate, always preferring the large canvas to the miniature.
Born in 1920 in Paris, he distinguished himself at school and university, but then found his career interrupted by the Second World War. Mayer served in the French Army and the Free French Forces, the Atlantic convoys, North Africa, Italy, the Allied Landing in southern France and the Battle of the Bulge. His bravery was rewarded with 14 decorations, including three Croix de Guerre.
With the war's end, he resumed his studies, first at Yale and then at the Sorbonne. In 1950 he joined the faculty of Harvard University, where he served for a quarter of a century before assuming the presidency of Tufts University in 1976, a post he held until 1992. At his death, he was Chancellor at Tufts.
One might expect that the author of some 750 scientific papers and 10 books would be remembered primarily for his scientific contributions, but such is not the case. More important were his contributions to the solution of national and international nutritional problems.
In 1969, for example, he organised a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, which resulted in expansion of the food stamp and school lunch programmes, nutrition programmes for the elderly, and pregnant and nursing women, and review of the safety of food additives.
In 1969 Mayer also led a mission to Biafra, a nation ravaged by war. The mission assessed health and nutritional conditions despite the need of its members to take cover in trenches, bunkers and ditches because of daily bombings. President Nixon responded to their report with increased shipment of food, drugs, and other relief supplies.
In 1970 Mayer organised an international symposium on famine, which produced the first comprehensive document on how nutrition and relief operations should be handled in times of disaster. The report was also the first to suggest that using starvation as a political tool was a violation of human rights and should be outlawed.
Shortly before his death, Mayer had just returned from a meeting in Rome of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, consulting on African relief, and from Kuwait, where he was helping that country's rebuilding efforts. To the very end he played out his preferred role as citizen of the world.
But these efforts do not in any way diminish Jean Mayer's remarkable achievements as a university president. Tenth President of Tufts University, he served ably for 16 years. During that period Tufts was transformed from an institution often described as 'a sleepy New England college' to a vibrant university of major dimensions.
Many innovations marked his tenure at Tufts. The first ever live television exchange between the US and the People's Republic of China was a highlight of the formal dedication of the Sackler Center for Health Communications. The Tufts Global Classroom Project twice each year linked via satellite students in Boston with students in the former Soviet Union for live, televised, interactive classrooms dealing with current events and world history. Twice Mayer convened conferences of 50 university and college presidents from around the world to gain their commitment to global peace and to developing a sustainable environment for future generations.
Mayer created the nation's first graduate school of nutrition and established New England's only veterinary school, a Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, and a Center for Environmental Management.
All of these accomplishments required not only imagination and energy, but the willingness to take risks. To the end, Mayer retained the spirit and courage of the resistance fighter who opposed Nazi tyranny. His reach sometimes exceeded his grasp, but, as Robert Browning's Andrea del Sarto reminds us. . . what's a heaven for?
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