Wilbur Olin Atwater, known as the father of American nutrition science, was the preeminent nutritionist in the United States for 25 years at the end of the 19th century. He established American nutrition on a quantitative basis, while explaining in popular articles what the new understanding of food meant for families.
Atwater and his co-workers compiled the nutrient content (calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates) of thousands of foods. They established the caloric values of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, taking into account digestibility, which are still called the “Atwater factors.” He established that the calories in alcohol could be used in place of food.
He helped start and manage the system of federally-funded agricultural experiment stations in each of the States. And he wrote articles for the public in leading magazines, all while serving as a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
Atwater was a man of his time and mistaken about certain things. He insisted that the protein requirement of men was at least 125 grams a day, about twice what it actually was. And his insistence that what mattered most in food was protein and calories would soon be challenged by the discovery of vitamins.
Atwater’s work ended abruptly at age 60 with a crippling stroke in 1904. He died three years later.
- National Agricultural Library collection of Atwater papers
- short biography by Kenneth Carpenter
- USDA history of Atwater’s research
- Atwater and USDA nutrition research by Buford Nichols
- Legacy of Atwater at USDA by Gary Beecher et al.
- biography on Wikipedia
- biographical sketch by LA Maynard