D. Mark Hegsted, national force in science of human nutrition, dies

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Longtime HSPH professor and researcher was 95

D. Mark Hegsted, who was instrumental in the development of the federal “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” died Tuesday, June 16, 2009, at the age of 95 at a nursing center in Westwood, Mass.

Hegsted was a founding member of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), among the first such departments in a medical or public health school in the world.

Hegsted’s research demonstrated the effects of specific dietary fats and cholesterol on serum cholesterol levels. His studies of calcium, iron, and protein broadened the understanding of dietary requirements to promote good health.

Hegsted was the father of the seminal “Dietary Goals for Americans,” the predecessor to the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which are published by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture and serve as the foundation of federal food and nutrition education programs.

“We have lost a luminary in the field of human nutrition who worked assiduously to elucidate the links between diet and health,” said Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard School of Public Health.

Added Walter Willett, chair of the HSPH Department of Nutrition: “When Dr. Hegsted joined HSPH, the rigorous study of human nutrition was nascent. Not only did he advance our understanding of the importance of a healthy diet, he influenced policies that have promoted and protected the health of millions of Americans.”

Hegsted was graduated from the University of Idaho in 1936. He earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1940. He worked as a research chemist at the Abbott Laboratories in Chicago for one year before joining the newly established Department of Nutrition at HSPH. In 1962, he became a professor of nutrition. In 1978, he was named administrator of human nutrition in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 1982 to 1984, he served as the associate director for research at the New England Regional Primate Research Center at Harvard Medical School.

Hegsted was president of the American Institute of Nutrition and served on advisory committees for the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Research Council.

In 1973, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was a fellow of the American Institute of Nutrition and of the American College of Nutrition.

He served as editor of “Nutrition Reviews” for 10 years (1968-78) and published more than 400 scientific articles and chapters. He remained actively engaged in nutrition research after his official retirement.

He was a recipient of the Osborne and Mendel Award and the Conrad A. Elvehjem Award for Public Service in Nutrition from the American Institute of Nutrition. In 1993, he received the Bristol-Myers Squibb/Mead Johnson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Nutrition Research. That same year, he was given a Distinguished Recognition award from the American Dietetic Association Foundation. In 2007, Hegsted received the Professor Emeritus Award of Merit from HSPH. An annual lecture at the School – the Stare-Hegsted Lecture – is named after him and after Fredrick Stare, the founding chair of the HSPH Department of Nutrition.

 Hegsted is survived by his son, Eric Hegsted, Eric’s wife, Anne Macaire, and grandsons Charles and William Hegsted, all of Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada; granddaughter, Camilla Franck, and great-granddaughter, Sarah Hespe, both of New York City; and sisters, Beth Parkinson and Helen Pratt. He was widowed in 1998 at the death of his wife Maxine Scow Hegsted.