Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Agnes Fay Morgan

Episode Summary

Agnes Fay Morgan (1884-1968) was a pioneer of nutritional science.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s Tastemaker was a pioneer of nutritional science whose work changed the perception of her field and the way we think about food and nutrition today. She was responsible for discovering and cataloguing the positive and negative nutritional effects  of many vitamins and published more than 250 academic papers on the subject. Meet Agnes Fay Morgan. 

Agnes Fay was born in Peoria, Illinois, on May 4, 1884. Her parents were Irish immigrants and Agnes was one of four children. Red-headed Agnes was an excellent student. She went to Vassar for a short period before transferring to study Chemistry at the University of Chicago. She got her bachelors degree there in 1904 and her masters just a year later in 1905. 

After graduation, Agnes taught at Hardin-Simmons College, the University of Montana, and the University of Washington. In the 1905 Hardin-Simmons Yearbook, Agnes was described as “wildly unconventional.” 

In 1908 while teaching at the University of Montana, Agnes met and married Arthur Morgan. He was a senior in her class, despite being four years older than her.

Agnes was hungry for more schooling so she returned to the University of Chicago and received her Ph.D. in Chemistry. At that time, it was quite rare for women to attain that level of higher education.

While Agnes was highly qualified for a professorial position in Chemistry, the opportunities for women in her field were few and far between. So in 1915, Agnes became assistant professor of nutrition in the Home Economics department at the University of California at Berkeley. Her salary was $1,800, $600 less than her male counterparts with the same education level. 

Agnes quickly rose through the ranks and by 1923, she had been promoted to full professor and was chair of her department. That year she also had a son. 

As chair of the Home Economics Department, Agnes worked to change the perception of her field. Home Economics was seen as training for women to become wives and mothers. But Agnes’ work was scientific and her department’s requirements and protocols were strict. She pushed to change the name of her department to reflect the scientific nature of the work they actually did there. Eventually it was renamed the Department of Nutritional Science, though not until 6 years after Agnes’ retirement. 

Agnes was not only a great teacher, but also an excellent researcher and scientist. She published more than 250 papers largely on the nutritional effects of vitamins. She showed that too little of certain vitamins can be problematic and too much of others can also cause the body harm. 

For example, she was the first to identify the fact that not enough of a particular B vitamin can lead to skin and hair pigmentation issues. She also showed that proteins have less nutritional value when heated, researched the nutritional value of processed foods, and sought to understand the relationships between vitamins and hormones. She also researched how different food preservation techniques affect nutritional content.

In 1949, Agnes was awarded the Garvan Medal by the American Chemical Society for her contributions to the field of nutrition, a prestigious honor. She also received the 1954 Borden Award from the American Institute of Nutrition and in 1961, Berkeley’s Department of Nutrition building was renamed Agnes Fay Morgan Hall. 

Agnes retired in 1954 but still continued her research. She was often spotted at her office right up to her death in 1968. She had suffered from a heart attack two weeks prior. 

At a memorial the following year a staff member said, “We can only feel that her going marked the end of an era in the education of women.” 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another tastemaker. We’ll be talking about a pioneer in the world of food safety.  

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Verishop, an e-commerce destination for everyday luxury, where the tastemakers of today can get everything they need to dress, cook, clean, and live. Go to Verishop.com/Encyclopedia that's V-E-R-I-S-H-O-P.COM/encyclopedia for 15% off your first order

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!