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Nevin Scrimshaw, 95; founded nutrition center

Nevin Scrimshaw taught at MIT and Tufts University.

1999 globe staff file photo

Nevin Scrimshaw taught at MIT and Tufts University.

A postdoctoral student in 1949 and the father of young children, Nevin Scrimshaw was only 31 when he took an academic leap of faith by moving his family from the University of Rochester to Guatemala, where he founded the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama.

Though nutrition was not then considered a marquee subject in medicine, the institute became a cornerstone of his career, and he spent the next seven decades shaping and influencing the burgeoning field of international nutrition in developing nations.

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“My professors thought I was throwing my career away,” he told the Globe in 2008. “Even my wife said, ‘If you do this, you know you’re going to be identified with nutrition for now on.’ ”

Dr. Scrimshaw, who founded MIT’s department of nutrition and food science a half century ago and was awarded the World Food Prize in 1991, died of congestive heart failure Friday in Speare Memorial Hospital in Plymouth, N.H. He was 95 and in retirement lived on a farm in Thornton, N.H.

“If there were a pantheon in the field of international nutrition, he would be absolutely at the top,” said Dr. Irwin Rosenberg, a former dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and board member of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation, which Dr. Scrimshaw founded.

“There’s no one else who comes even close to having cast as much influence around the world: in Asia, in Central America, in Africa,” Rosenberg said. “I can’t even think of anyone in a close second-place.”

The foundation that bears Dr. Scrimshaw’s name is housed at Tufts, and he also founded the world hunger program of the United Nations University, where he formerly was a senior advisor and director of the food, nutrition, human, and social development program.

“He has either founded or presided over more institutions in the field of nutrition than any other person,” Rosenberg said.

By creating an international infrastructure for nutrition research, and through his work as a mentor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Scrimshaw “populated the world with first-rate scientists,” said Jean-Pierre Habicht, a professor emeritus of nutritional epidemiology at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.

Dr. Scrimshaw’s “passion in life was to create opportunities for people to be scientists around the world, especially nutrition scientists,” said his daughter, Susan Scrimshaw, president of The Sage Colleges in Troy and Albany, N.Y., and a former president of Simmons College. “He was passionate about building a scientific presence in developing countries.”

His research, meanwhile, helped create inexpensive ways to improve the diet of young children in developing nations, where decades ahead of most in the field he concluded that malnutrition was a leading contributor to infant mortality.

Over the years, Dr. Scrimshaw also “had a very powerful commitment to bringing social science methods and theories into the field of nutrition,” said Gretel Pelto, a graduate professor at Cornell in the division of nutritional science.

In 1991, the World Food Prize citation said that “his revolutionary accomplishments . . . in fighting protein, iodine, and iron deficiencies, developing nutritional supplements, educating generations of experts, and building support for continued advances in food quality have made substantial improvements in the lives of millions throughout the world.”

Born in Milwaukee, Nevin Stewart Scrimshaw was the older of two brothers whose father was an economics professor at Marquette University and whose mother taught at a local community college.

His brother, Norman, died in action in France during World War II, and “I think part of his drive was somehow to make up for that” to his parents, his daughter said.

He “was very much a driven man,” said Habicht, who was Dr. Scrimshaw’s first graduate student at MIT. “He was go, go, go all the time.”

Dr. Scrimshaw graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1938 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. From Harvard University he received a master’s in biology in 1939 and a doctorate in physiology in 1941. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1945 with a medical degree, and received a master’s in public health from Harvard in 1959.

He met Mary W. Goodrich while both were waiting tables and taking summer classes at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where her father was one of his professors.

They married in 1941, and as their children grew older, her research as a nutritional anthropologist helped influence his work to incorporate such data into nutrition science.

Beginning in 1949, the family lived for a dozen years in Guatemala, where Dr. Scrimshaw led in the development of Incaparina, a low-cost, fortified mixture of cottonseed flour and maize that is given to most Guatemalan children in their first year to combat protein deficiency. He also helped develop a similar food from peanut and wheat flours to prevent malnutrition in other developing countries.

Dr. Scrimshaw joined the MIT faculty in 1961, and along with research on iodine deficiency and the interactions of nutrition and infection, he wrote or edited more than 20 books, and published hundreds of articles. He also was a founder of the Food and Nutrition Bulletin, a quarterly journal.

Since retiring in 1988, he has been an institute professor emeritus at MIT and a visiting professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

“He expected a lot of himself,” his daughter said. “We used to joke that the only way you could really talk to Dad was to work beside him, or to play beside him. You could go skiing with him and have a conversation going up the ski lift, but he had to be doing something constantly.”

Services will be announced for Dr. Scrimshaw, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves four sons, Norman and Nevin of Thornton, N.H., Steven of Sherborn, and Nathaniel of Portland, Maine; eight grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Always physically active, Dr. Scrimshaw skied into his 90s and went to a fitness center until a couple of years ago. He still taught workshops internationally in his late 80s.

“People ask me what the secret is, and I think there are several,” he told the Globe in 2008, after celebrating his 90th birthday by going skiing. “One is I’m physically and mentally active. Another is I follow a pretty optimal diet. And the third is that I lead a very stress-free life. I have a wonderful marriage, the children and grandchildren are doing well, and I’ve received all the professional recognition that anybody could ask for. I’m very satisfied.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard @globe.com.

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