Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science
In the 1950s and 1960s, an international cohort of nutrition experts shared the conviction that protein malnutrition was one of the world's most urgent public health problems. They believed protein deficiency was not only widespread in what they called the developing countries, but that it permanently damaged the "quality of people" by limiting brain development in childhood. In this talk, I ask how protein became a public health problem and why it was compelling not only to nutrition experts but also to development specialists, policymakers, and journalists. This "protein gap" theory had its roots in British colonial medicine and was supported by the growth of international public health after World War II. It appealed, I argue, in large part because it purported to explain differences in populations without reference to genetics or race, in a moment in which scientists were disavowing such eugenic thought. I will then turn to the consequences of the protein gap theory, in nutrition science and in nutrition policy.