Feeding a nation: Dr. Cecile Hoover Edwards
Sometimes, reading about history will reveal someone truly amazing—someone who faced unimaginable adversity and still defied all the odds to do world-changing things. Dr. Cecile Hoover Edwards is one such person. An African-American woman born in the 1920s, she faced many hurdles, but she still graduated high school at age 15, got a PhD in chemistry before the age of 25, and went on to change the way we understand human health.
You’ll often hear that your DNA is like a recipe book that tells your body how to make everything that it needs. The analogy is built on the idea that within your DNA there are around 20,000 different genes. Each gene codes a set of instructions that tells your body how to build a specific protein. In this way, each gene is like a recipe for a protein. Anyone who’s ever tried to cook something will know, however, that there’s more to cooking than just a good recipe—you’ll also need good ingredients.
In order for our body to create proteins, it has to have the basic building blocks of proteins, which are known as amino acids. The human body uses more than 20 different amino acids which can be combined in every which way, not unlike Lego bricks or Tinker Toys, to create complex proteins. Some of these amino acids we can make for ourselves, but some of them we can only get from food. Failure to do so can have far reaching impacts on our health and longevity—a fact that Dr. Edwards knew all too well.
Dr. Edwards was an accomplished researcher who focused on nutrition and the biochemical elements of food1,2. Her research explored how the lack of specific amino acids in our food affected our health, specifically within the African-American community. Within her many studies, she assessed the way a child’s diet could affect some seemingly simple traits, like their height, as well as more complex traits like how they performed in school. In addition to providing valuable scientific insight, her studies had two major outcomes.
The first was that they enabled her to develop low-cost meal plans for underprivileged communities where people lacked expert nutritional guidance. With her studies, she brought nutritional science to African-American communities and, in so doing, taught many how to get important amino acids and other nutrients with foods that they were already accustomed to1,2.
The second outcome was that her studies provided a scientific opposition to the popular thinking that a person’s intelligence was somehow determined solely by their genetics. This idea was held by many prominent eugenicists, many of whom used it to support racist ideals. Her results showed that a child’s environment—their diet, their connection with adults, and their stress—could affect their intellectual development1,2.
Dr. Edwards went on to study how a person’s environment can have far-reaching, sometimes dangerous impacts on a person’s life. She found that communities who experienced high levels of poverty were more likely to suffer from hypertension due to the many stresses associated with poverty. She strongly advised that medical institutions begin looking at a patient’s environment and considering its potential roles in prompting illness1.
Dr. Edward’s holistic view of health and the human condition was supported by more than 160 scientific articles2. In addition to her research, Dr. Edwards also founded numerous academic programs including the first PhD program in nutrition at a historically black college, Howard University. She was a force to be reckoned with, and thanks to her efforts, we now have an appreciation for the powerful impact that nutrition and our environment can have on our health.
2“Cecile H. Edwards Dies at Age 78; Howard Professor, Nutrition Expert.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Sept. 2005, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/23/AR2005092301919.html.