Helen Atwater

Helen Atwater

By: Emily Contois, Chapman Assistant Professor of Media Studies

Black and white photograph of Helen Atwater wearing a dark dress, glasses and a scarf loosely tied around her neck
Helen Atwater (copyright American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, Cornell University Library)

I’m fascinated by what health and nutrition mean in American culture and how media circulate these meanings. When I was researching the history of American food guides, I came across “How to Select Foods,” published in 1917 by Hunt and Atwater. I assumed that this Atwater was Wilbur Olin Atwater, the man so often heralded as “The Father of American Nutrition.”

I was wrong.

It was Helen Atwater and a little digging revealed that she was Wilbur Atwater’s daughter, who had grown up alongside his research and, as much as possible given the gender politics of her day, followed in his footsteps.

As is too often the case with histories of male-dominated fields, Helen Woodard Atwater’s name, story, and contributions are relatively absent from accounts of the early days of American nutrition science, though they’ve been slowly recovered.[1] In many ways, Helen Atwater is the first lady of American nutrition, who made her own mark on the world of food, though few know her name.

A World War 1 poster that reads "Help your boy at the front. Use less wheat and meat. Send more to him." Includes a large United States flag.
World War I poster

Despite her interest in nutrition, Helen did not pursue its study in college, as it was a rarity for women to attend university in the late nineteenth century, let alone study science. One of the most esteemed leaders of the domestic science movement, Ellen Richards, was the first woman ever admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She gained entrance in 1870 as a “special student,” a status that demarcated and demoted her within the classroom for her sex/gender. In fact, when Helen pursued higher education in the 1890s at Smith College, only 2.2% of U.S. women aged 18 to 21 years attended college.[2]

After graduation, Helen Atwater worked as an editorial and research assistant with her father in his laboratory. She assisted him in preparing “Principles of Nutrition and the Nutritive Value of Food,” published in 1902 in the USDA Farmers’ Bulletin No. 142, a landmark publication. On her own, she also wrote “Bread and the Principles of Bread Making” in 1900 and “Poultry As Food” in 1903.

When she was in her late twenties, Helen’s father died from a stroke. She then took charge of her father’s papers and later joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Home Economics as a writer and editor. With Caroline Hunt she published the guide I mentioned in my opening sentences, “How to Select Foods,” which was one of the first official American food guides that greatly influenced early federal nutrition policy. Atwater also worked on myriad food conservation efforts during World War I, including “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays.”

woman with short hair, smiling, wearing a dark blue blouse and standing in front of a green shrub
Emily Contois

She published, edited and oversaw countless newsletters, articles, pamphlets and guides. Throughout her career, Atwater sought to inform the public on nutrition science and how it could influence everyday life. She died in 1947 at the age of 71.

Of the many resources Helen Atwater published, one of my favorites is “Honey and Its Uses in the Home” from 1915. It covers everything you’d ever want to know about honey. It also included dozens of recipes, which offer “extraculinary” meaning.[3]

Reading between the lines of the clearly worded “Yellow Honey Cake” recipe tells the story of home economists who boldly occupied an ambivalent position between the perceivably feminine and masculine, private and public, domestic and professional, as they carved out their own space and played significant roles in the history of nutrition.


A longer version of this essay originally appeared on Nursing Clio, May 3, 2017. It is republished with permission by the author and the editors.

[1] Melissa J. Wilmarth and Sharon Y. Nickols, “Helen Woodard Atwater: A Leader of Leaders,” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 41: 3 (2013): 314–324.

[2] Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1985).

[3] Gayle R. Davis, “Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote. By Janet Theophano, “The Journal of American History 90: 2 (2003): 617-618.

Does the shaping of lives and society by race, gender, sexuality, class and other factors fascinate you? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out TU’s welcoming and vibrant Women’s and Gender Studies program today.