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The Little Magician Who Could

How former Tufts President Jean Mayer made the Friedman School appear out of thin air.

Not so long ago, I saw a small group of Tufts undergraduates examining a bust near the entrance to Tisch Library. “Jean Mayer,” read the inscription, “President, Tufts University, 1976–1992.” When I joined the group and asked whether anyone knew who this bronze head belonged to, I was met with silence. There are certain virtues about growing old. If you hold onto memory and neurons, you can remind later generations of what has been forgotten and needs to be relearned.

Before letting the students escape, I asked about the courses they were planning to take in the upcoming semester. Two had signed up for the introductory course on human nutrition, while another had secured a spot in an anthropology course titled “New Food Activism.” Yet another, an upperclassman working toward a major in environmental studies—specifically food systems, nutrition, and the environment—said she was trying to beg her way into “Food Justice: Critical Approaches to Policy and Planning,” a seminar in the graduate Department of Urban and Environmental Policy. None of these students had any idea that, standing next to that bust, they were in the presence of the man who made every one of these courses possible. None of them had ever heard of Jean Mayer. Why should they? After all, he had been dead for more than twenty years. How were they to know that this was the visionary who, without expectation or preparation, built academic bridges that connected every school of the university—or that what crossed those bridges was the wholly unanticipated field of nutrition.

How did it happen? It could sound like a fairy tale: Once upon a time there was a little magician with a French accent who wanted only to be president of a university in Boston that had a medical school, because he desperately wanted to convince the medical community that prevention and wellness were at least as important as curing disease. But like Cinderella, he was an academic stepchild. His own university, Harvard, smiled at his efforts to lead and said no. He tried Boston University, and they chose another. Twice he wooed Tufts—in 1967 and again in 1976—but each time he was rejected. Finally, he decided to use his magic wand, and the next thing anyone knew, the finalist selected by Tufts in 1976 stunned everyone by saying, “No, thanks!” By this time, the second choice had already taken another position, leaving no one except the little magician with an agenda known only to him: nutrition. The Board of Trustees reluctantly appointed him the tenth president of Tufts University, and everyone lived happily ever after…. That sounds more charming than it was, actually. It was more like war.

The vast majority of health scientists and medical doctors in the Seventies considered nutrition a backwater of medical research at best, and some thought of it as a suspect pseudoscience of dubious pronouncements broadcast by television hucksters. Personalities like Adelle Davis, Gaylord Hauser, and Carleton Fredericks dominated the airwaves. Little wonder, then, that much of the Tufts medical faculty was unhappy with the Jean Mayer appointment. So imagine their shock when the new president announced soon after his inauguration that he had received federal money for a human nutrition research center at Tufts, or their outrage when they learned about the way that he had gotten the funding.

Mayer had run a White House conference on nutrition in 1969 for President Nixon and had seen firsthand how the National Institutes of Health were funding large nutrition programs: they weren’t. The study panels were chaired almost exclusively by M.D.s who were just not interested. So instead of trying to go through them, Mayer figured out how to go around them. He built a relationship with the all-powerful Massachusetts congressman and Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, and convinced him that the Commonwealth citizens were desperately in need of nutritional and wellness intervention. After that, O’Neill ordered the Department of Agriculture to put funds in its budget for a research center to be constructed on Tufts’ health sciences campus in Boston. The haughty big stepsister institutions down the road quickly ran to Washington to testify before congressional appropriations committees that plain and homely Tufts, with its little magician president, couldn’t possibly pull off the research center.

But they were wrong, and like Cinderella fitting into the glass slipper, the college became a force for great research, public policy, and a whole flock of new courses for undergraduates. It also made history: economists have since come to recognize that the research center was the first non-peer-reviewed, university-designated line item appropriation in the federal budget—the first pork.

But Mayer was interested in more than science. He wanted a policy arm to nutrition, because his instincts told him that he needed an agenda articulated by social scientists, policymakers, and educational advocates to bring the health-and-wellness message to America and the world. So he waved his wand yet again and got the trustees in 1981 to approve the creation of the first—and still the only—graduate school of nutrition science and policy in the world.

Mayer continued to face challenges, including an occasionally angry faculty and at-times bewildered trustees, but there was a growing awareness around Tufts that something transformational had happened. Tufts, the good gray New England institution, had found a cause.

More than thirty-five years later, every school of this small, complex university is now tied together by the legacy of that little magician and his vision: We have become an institution identified by a worldwide commitment to understanding the significance of nutrition in our lives and in the survival of the world. That commitment is everywhere at Tufts: from food systems and nutrition to food justice in the new Arts and Sciences environmental studies track; from nutritional feeding of stem cells to research on diet and cancer; from the Fletcher School’s focus on food security and international famine to the dental school’s dietary recommendations for preschool children’s oral health—and even Cummings School’s commitment to finding out what is best to feed your pet. The 2015 Thomson Reuters list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds singled out five Tufts faculty: two of them—Jeffrey Blumberg and Dariush Mozaffarian—are from the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

It all happened almost in the blink of an eye, and it only happened because the person originally chosen to be president of Tufts in 1976 changed his mind, and a desperate board of trustees had to find someone. So the next time you walk past the bust of the little magician in front of the Tisch Library, stop for a moment, maybe just to say thanks, or thank heavens.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies, and biblical literature and is a former provost of Tufts University.

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