Who Was the First American Dietitian?

Today, most of us have heard of nutritional science in one form or another, but you may be surprised to learn that the first American dietitian got her start less than two centuries ago. Although what we eat has arguably become an obsession in modern times, it wasn't always such a societal focal point – and the early pioneers may have even enjoyed a healthier relationship with their food than we do today.

Who was Sarah Tyson Rorer?

Sarah Tyson Rorer (1849-1937) was a titan in the field of nutrition. She's commonly credited with pioneering and popularizing the science of dietary reform in America by creating menus based on then-nascent scientific principles geared toward improving health while still being tasty and appetizing.

Rorer's work helped shape many aspects of the nutritional principles we adhere to today. So what exactly did she do?

According to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where Rorer was born, she wasn't just the first dietitian – She was the founder of home economics. During the late 1800s, the nation was still suffering in the aftermath of the Civil War. At the same time, life was evolving on the household front due to factors like industrialization. Many women responded to the need to learn new tasks by augmenting their homemade recipe books with housekeeping tasks.

Rorer exemplified this movement to further essential knowledge, becoming a teacher of cooking and dietetics – not to mention writing numerous books, giving demonstrations, and preserving recipes for future generations. One of her books, Mrs. Rorer's Vegetable Cookery and Meat Substitutes, stands out as being one of the Western world's first examples of formalized vegetarian cooking – and even included instructions on creating three meat-free meals per day, foreshadowing future trends like Meatless Mondays!

Unpacking the Title of First American Dietitian

Interestingly, Rorer's claim to fame hasn't always gone completely undisputed. Most agree that she was a pioneer and the first to publish ideas later confirmed by research, like that:

  • Frying food isn't the healthiest option, 
  • Balanced diets ought to contain nutrients like protein, carbs, minerals, fats, and water in appropriate proportions, and 
  • Enjoying food is a critical element of good health.

The problem is that much time has passed since Rorer's day. A lot of the knowledge we have about her is anecdotal or inaccurate – and without a direct understanding of her practices, it's hard to define to what degree she was influenced by the scientific method and her chemistry background versus the prevailing sensibilities of the day.

On one hand, it's certainly true that she was immensely popular in her day – after all, people even wrote Broadway songs about her. It's also indisputable that she influenced individual homemakers and culinary professionals in new ways – her Philadelphia School of Cookery was a pioneering institution that employed then-state-of-the-art chemistry and specialized in devising suitable menus for the sick. Rorer was also a natural at direct education and outreach, giving entertaining demonstrations and later stumping for political candidates.

Another issue is that Rorer wasn't the only budding home economist of her day, even if she's likely the best remembered. Also, being a Registered Dietitian/Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is a specific credential managed by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – an organization that didn't even exist when Rorer got her start. In other words, Rorer may have been the first, but her innovative style was markedly different from what we'd expect from a certified dietitian in modern times.

Lenna Frances Cooper

A more formal approach would have to wait until around World War I. In 1917, Lenna F. Cooper (1875-1961) founded the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (then known as the American Dietetic Association) along with home economics teacher Lulu Grace Graves. The purpose of their new organization was mainly to bring hospital dietitians together over war-related public health issues and promote the avoidance of food waste.

Lulu Grace Graves

Lulu Grace Graves (1874-1949) served not only as a co-founder but also as the first president of the association. Like Cooper and Rorer before them, Graves was well-educated and authored multiple books, focusing particularly on the ties between nutrition, diet, diseases like diabetes, and exercise.

Emma Seifrit

Another early pioneer was Emma Seifrit (1933-2020), notable not only for her doctoral thesis and biographies on Sarah Tyson Rorer but also as an accomplished clinical instructor and nutrition expert in her own right. 

Seifrit taught home economics, but she also wrote numerous publications that tied the story of the others together, tracking the history of nutritional science through the years and establishing a foundation for today's modern, evidence-based practice. She may not have been the first herself, but her work played a pivotal role in connecting today's nutritionists to their early roots.

Final Thoughts

In all, it seems pretty safe to say that Sarah Tyson Rorer laid the groundwork for modern nutrition and dietetics. But it's just as important to acknowledge the others who helped bridge the gaps between her ideas and what we know today.

Thousands of years of written human history stand as a testament to the fact that we've always had some inkling of an idea that nutrition and health were connected. Still, it took the pioneering activities of women like Rorer, Cooper, Graves, and Seifrit to bring these concepts into the modern era – and make a rigorous profession of it in the process. Want to learn more about where nutritional science is heading? Visit Top Nutrition Coaching online and talk to an expert.