Stanley Gershoff, Founding Dean of Nutrition School, at 92

He was an early adopter of the idea that research could drive policy to help people
Stanley Gershoff in 1990
“Stan’s leadership was friendly, informal and collegial; he ran the school as a kind of committee of the whole,” John Field said. “We all loved him for it.” Photo: Mark Morelli
March 17, 2017

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Stanley N. Gershoff, the first dean of the nutrition school at Tufts and the matchmaker behind its unique marriage of science and policy for the betterment of world health, died on March 11 at his home in Oakland, California. He was 92.

With the support of Tufts’ president—his longtime friend Jean Mayer, a nutritionist—Gershoff campaigned for the creation of the school, which opened in 1981 and eventually became the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Dariush Mozaffarian, the current dean, said Gershoff was a visionary leader and scientist. “He was also a gentleman and, throughout his life, a staunch supporter and advocate of our school. His legacy is remarkable.”

Forming an independent graduate school of nutrition was a radical idea in the early 1980s, when most nutrition programs were subservient afterthoughts housed in schools of agriculture, home economics or public health. As Gershoff told the Milwaukee Journal in 1981, “The problem with those arrangements is the scope of activities is very much dictated by the school it’s in.”

To counter that, Gershoff hired faculty with backgrounds in economics, psychology, international relations and other social sciences, hoping to tackle the real-life obstacles that stand between people and a healthy diet. He saw those barriers during his own field research in Asia, where he studied vitamin A fortification in Indonesia and amino acid fortification of rice in Thailand. Domestically, he visited poor Americans in their homes, where he discovered that many did not know about resources such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and that food stamp offices sometimes were not listed in the phone book. “One has to be a bit warped to provide a program and not inform the people it was designed to help,” Gershoff told a congressional committee in 1986.

Stanley Gershoff unveiling his portrait in 2011 at the Friedman School. Photo: Kelvin Ma “He was a warm and genuine and brutally honest person,” said Alice Lichtenstein, who holds an endowed faculty position, the Gershoff Professorship, at the Friedman School. “He said what he felt,” she added, recalling the choice words he had for her when he was trying to teach her to fish and she proved too squeamish. Fishing, and his longtime summer home in Mashpee, Massachusetts, were two of his passions.

Gershoff came to Tufts from the Harvard School of Public Health, where the future of nutrition studies was under hot debate, said University Professor Sol Gittleman, who was the Tufts provost then. “Stan arrived on the Hill looking for a fight—but no one would fight with him. He would throw out an insult, and he would get a laugh in return,” he said. “He was a curmudgeon, a comedian, a sort of Don Rickles with a Ph.D. No one could stay mad too long at Stan.”

A Life of Service

Gershoff was born in 1924 in Manhattan, the son of a Russian immigrant and a New Yorker. He graduated high school at age 14, and was not yet 20 when he served as an Army sergeant in the Pacific during World War II, part of the time as a medic.

He studied zoology and chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, where he also earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in biochemistry. From there he went to the Harvard School of Public Health, where he spent 24 years as a researcher of everything from cat nutrition to kidney stones to vitamin B6; he was promoted to associate professor of nutrition in 1965.

Gershoff belonged to a number of professional societies and received numerous awards recognizing his work in nutrition, including membership in the prestigious European Academy of Science and Art.

But some of the work he was most proud of, he said, was tangential to his research. While in Thailand, he established programs to build day care centers and to train women living in rural villages to become health-care workers. In the following 30 years, the Thailand Ministry of Health, he said, expanded the program exponentially.

From 1967 to 1968, he was part of a board of inquiry into hunger and malnutrition in the United States, which issued the report Hunger USA. Chairing a panel at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in 1969, Gershoff saw how research could actually turn into policies that would help people. “This became big to me,” he said. 

His lab at Harvard adjoined that of Jean Mayer, who had run that White House conference. When Mayer became president of Tufts in 1976, he quickly tapped Gershoff to create the Tufts Nutrition Institute in 1977. Four years later, it became a school, with Gershoff as dean. He also worked with Mayer to secure funding for a research center that was constructed in 1982 on Tufts’ health sciences campus in Boston: the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

One of Gershoff’s first unconventional hires was John Field, a political scientist from MIT. Field said Gershoff gave unwavering support and assistance to the faculty. He remembered when Mayer saw the chance to secure a large grant from the CIA for Field to study food security. But Field feared the CIA connection would jeopardize his future work abroad, so Gershoff successfully took his side against the president.

“Stan’s leadership was friendly, informal and collegial; he ran the school as a kind of committee of the whole,” Field said. “We all loved him for it.”

Elizabeth Cochary Gross, N82, N88, a student in the first class at the nascent nutrition school, stayed on for her doctorate and asked Gershoff to be her advisor. “He was always ready to help and advise, no matter how busy he was at the time,” she said. “But I always had to leave plenty of extra time for our meetings, since he always had a story for every question or problem.”

Cochary Gross, now a Tufts trustee, went on to initiate a scholarship program in his name, the Gershoff Scholars. “Stan never changed in looks or attitude,” she said. “He was ageless, and I always thought he would be around. I will miss him.”

In 1982, Gershoff started what would become the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, which he edited until 2000. With his colleagues at the newsletter, he wrote the Tufts University Guide to Total Nutrition in 1990, which sold out its first hardcover edition.

Gershoff met Marilyn Crim, a nutrition researcher and future physician, at a conference in Florida in 1974. When they got to the airport, he secretly switched his ticket to Boston, where she was headed. He hadn’t realized that, in O. Henry fashion, she had changed her flight to follow him. They married in 1989 on the Tufts campus.

After he stepped down as dean in 1993 and retired from Tufts in 1996, Gershoff served as an ombudsman in Davis, California, for people in long-term care facilities. But he would return to Tufts every year for the Gershoff Symposium, an event that examines some of the most pressing issues in nutrition. One year, he had an emergency hospitalization two days before the symposium. At his urging, said his wife, “we got him out the next day. On the third day, we got him to Boston.” He stood at the podium and gave his speech, which was, as usual, “everything that was in his mind and his heart.” 

His biggest job did not happen until later in life. At age 70, he became stay-at-home dad to a daughter, Carrie, who was born in 1995. Last year, Gershoff and his wife watched their daughter graduate from Tufts with a degree in English. Seeing that was a joy for him, said Crim, “probably for him the only thing better than being at Tufts himself.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by his niece, Beth Feinberg, and his sister-in-law, Marcia Hooper.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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