Harvard Medical School

History of Nutrition Research

Founding of the Department

Harvard's Department of Nutrition was founded in 1942 as a result of a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Initially, it was located in the Department of Biochemistry in Harvard Medical School, but it was administered in the School of Public Health.

In 1946, the department moved into larger space, acquired by the School of Public Health and in 1962 it moved into a new building built to its specifications  By then it had grown from one of the smallest to one of the largest departments in either school. The department was responsible for teaching nutrition in both the School of Public Health and the Medical School.  It was the first department of nutrition established in any medical school or school of public health in the world.

Dr. Fredrick Stare served as chairman for 34 years and since 1976 has been an emeritus professor. In 1992 he was appointed distinguished professor emeritus.  Dr. Walter Willett has been Chairman since 1991.

Despite its original intent, this Department of Nutrition has evolved into a HSPH-based program with little involvement at Harvard Medical School.

While it was hoped that the teaching of nutrition at Harvard would include students in other parts of the university, initial efforts have involved primarily the Schools of Public Health, Medicine, Dentistry and the affiliated hospitals and clinics.  The Harvard Human Nutrition Program sponsors monthly seminars, given by individuals in various departments of the Schools of Public Health and Medicine and by visiting lecturers, as well as an annual symposium.

A Nutrition Obesity Research Center supported by the NIH was established in 1992. Over 100 faculty in the HMS-affiliated hospitals have been identified as having major clinical or research interests in nutrition, but usually these investigators have a primary affiliation in other departments (e.g., Medicine, Surgery, Pediatrics, Preventive and Primary Care Medicine) or hospitals. One of the main purposes of establishing a Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School is to have these clinical and research faculty in closer touch for projects of mutual interest and to provide a more efficient use of resources within this discipline.

Formation of the HMS Division of Nutrition

The Division of Nutrition was established at Harvard Medical School in 1996 by the Faculty Council. This Division was charged with coordinating all nutritional activities involving education, research and clinical care between the medical school and its major teaching hospitals – Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

It was the Faculty Council’s view that Nutrition as a discipline would have more visibility at Harvard as an independent Division within the medical school. Furthermore, this Division was charged to interact with the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Human Nutrition Program at the same institution.

Specific Goals:

  1. To establish collaborations among investigators within the DON to obtain funding for large clinical and basic nutritional investigations across various teaching hospitals at HMS and HSPH.
  2. To provide nutrition education for medical students throughout the four year curriculum.
  3. To establish and maintain postgraduate education for medical doctors and other medical personnel (RNs, RDs, etc.) within the HMS medical community.
  4. To provide evidence-based nutrition information to the public through websites, webcasts and education programs.
  5. To maintain a close working relationship with the Harvard Catalyst Program and to promote postgraduate educational opportunities or M.D.s and Ph.D.s in nutrition.

Dr. Walker has been the Principal Investigator of the NIH-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard (NORC-H) (P30-DK40561) now in the 19th year of existence. This Center, with 90 investigators and 23 associate investigators from HMS, MOH, BWH, BI-Deaconess, Dana Faber, CH, Boston University, HSPH and the USDA Center at Tufts, has through its pilot/feasibility project competitions and core laboratories facilities (genomics/molecular biology, microbial analysis, cellular biology, stable isotope/mass spectrometry and statistics cores) generated approximately $30,000,000 in new federal funding over the last four years including $8,000,000 from P/F Awardees. Dr. Steven Grinspoon has become the new PI of the NORC-H as of 2016.

In addition, we have obtained approximately $6,000,000. in research grants from industry to support nutritional research activities at BIDMC and MOH (discussed in detail in Sections 10 and 13, Industry Collaborations).

Examples of research accomplishments include the following:

a) Dr. Allan Walker has established a Microbiota Analysis Core within the NORC-H which has linked to the Genomics Core by a $1,500,000 research grant from Mead Johnson Nutritionals over a five year period. This facility has resulted in several nutrition projects: 1) analysis of microbiome of prematures fed expressed breast milk vs. formula as the basis for protection against necrotizing enterocolitis; 2) identifying the microbiome of children diagnosed with Crohn disease after nutritional treatment vs. conventional anti-inflammatory anti-metabolite treatment; 3) determination of the microbiome of mothers and children from families with autism based on maternal and infant diet.

b) Dr. Steven Grinspoon, Associate PI of the NORC-H and Professor of Medicine at HMS and a member of the DON Executive Committee using the NORC-H Statistic and Metabolomics Cores has established a multi-center consortium to determine the effect of diet on obesity and components of metabolic syndrome.

c) Dr. George Blackbum, Professor of Surgery at HMS and Co-Director of the DON has established collaborations to study the neurologic basis for excessive weight and metabolic syndrome after our symposium in 2011 "Your Brain Can Help You Eat Better". He has recently obtained $4,500,000 over a five year period from the Feihe International Inc. to establish a joint venture between industry and academia at a BID MC Nutrition Laboratory. Several members of the DON will participate in this at the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard (NORCH).