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Lenna Frances Cooper

Saturday, 21 March 2015 00:00  by Yolanda F.

Celeste, my wise and wonderful 82-year-old grandmother, is one of the few people I know over 60 who doesn’t take medication on a daily basis to either keep her alive and healthy or to keep anxiety or depression in check. In her younger days, she created magnificent meals often with organic produce from her garden. I can’t help but focus, particularly since March is National Nutrition Month, on her wonderful cooking antics I witnessed throughout our years together.

I’ll never forget the day she said, “No one should eat cookies.” This was, of course, only part of the conversation and smack in the middle of tearing into a box of cookies my daughter had sold her. It was hilarious because although we knew we were going to eat them anyway, she felt the need to preface our commonplace behavior of eating something almost entirely void of nutritional value.

She wasn’t necessarily referring to a particular kind of cookies, but rather most packaged cookies that are high in saturated fat with the first ingredient listed as, you guessed it, sugar. I knew she wasn’t wrong, but it made me laugh and now any time I reach for a cookie, I hear those words.

I imagine Lenna Frances Cooper to have been someone like my grandmother, who might tell people what they should and shouldn’t eat, though Cooper did it on a much grander scale. Cooper was born in 1875 and died in 1961 at the age of 86. Her life’s work was to create a platform for dietetics as a science as well as a profession. She had been educated as a nurse and became the protégé of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, director of the Seventh Day Adventist sanitarium in Battle Creek, and his wife, Ella. With their guidance, Cooper immersed herself in the study of nutrition and became a trailblazer in the field.

Cooper accomplished a lot of firsts. By 1908, she was the first appointed director of Kellogg’s School of Home Economics, where more than 500 dieticians graduated under her directorship. The American Home Economics Association, founded in 1909, and the Michigan Home Economics Association founded in 1911, both benefitted from Cooper’s involvement as a charter member. In 1917, she co-founded the American Dietetic Association (ADA) to answer the need for national standards in dietetics. In 1918, though many of her recommendations weren’t adopted until World War II, she was the first dietician ever to serve in the Army. In 1929, she became the first president of the Michigan Dietetic Association as well as a consultant for the establishment of the department of dietetics in the research hospital of the National Institute of Health.

Although her ideas were called “radical” for the era, people listened and eventually understood her way of thinking. Proof was in acknowledgements like being named one of the 10 most distinguished women of achievement in Michigan in 1928.

Cooper was also senior author of Nutrition in Health and Disease, which was used for 30 years in dietetics and nursing programs all over the world. She wrote two other books about nutrition, but her most famous is perhaps her cookbook, “The New Cookery: A Book of Recipes, Most of Which are Used at the Battle Creek Sanitarium” published in 1929. The book’s copyright is 1913 and in the foreword, Cooper writes, “Until recent years, little attention has been paid to the scientific preparation and selection of foods. For many years men have been versed in the proper feeding of stock, but strange to say, it has only recently occurred to man that equally as good results come from the proper feeding of the human being as from the scientific care of animals.”

Cooper was said to have been kind and soft-spoken but at the same time strong-willed and persistent, which is possibly what made her so successful. More than three decades after her death, in 1993 she was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame for her work in dietetics.

She has truly left her mark, not only with her books and the organizations that recognize her to this day. For the past 51 years, dieticians have been given the Lenna Frances Cooper Memorial Award and must give the Lenna Frances Cooper Memorial Lecture where a combination of new and old ideas is shared with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I imagine it exceeds the infinite wisdom and advice not to eat cookies.

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