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News Department Article

Q & A: Mary Ann Williams, Nutritionist


Ken Hall

publication information

California Agriculture 50(6):36-37. DOI: 10.3733/ca.v050n06p36. November-December 1996.


Mary Ann Williams came to UC Berkeley in 1951 as a graduate student. In 1955, she joined the faculty of the Berkeley department of nutrition and home economics, primarily studying essential fatty acids and their metabolic functions. She retired in 1991, but continues to teach part time at UC Berkeley.

full text

In 1946, when California Agriculture was first published, California was entering a post-World War II era of optimism and prosperity. UC's College of Agriculture was on the brink of a great expansion. As you remember that time, what do you think society expected from the College of Agriculture?

MW: I had been an undergraduate at Iowa State University, which is another very famous land grant college. And then I was also at Cornell. I think in that time, society expected abundant food and at a reasonable price. This was the postwar expansion period when new technology and economic optimism gave rise to the notion that everything was going to get better and better.

How did you see your role and how did your job change over the years from your initial expectations?

MW: When I was a grad student in nutrition, I was attached to the poultry department. Grad students had to learn a certain amount of practical poultrying. Because the poultry department was paying us a graduate stipend, service to the poultry industry was part of our obligation for our salary. The nutrition and home economics faculty did not let us forget that we were paid by the taxpayers and had a responsibility to relate our teaching and research activities to taxpayer concerns.

Looking back, what do you think UC's most significant research and Extension contributions were during those years, particularly in your area of expertise?

MW: After WWII, the availability of radioisotopes, as well as other advances in methodology, truly revolutionized research. In the late 1940s, studies by Dr. Agnes Fay Morgan and Dr. Charles Heidelberger of the Berkeley “rad lab” were the first to show definitely that the amino acid tryptophan could be converted to the niacin. In the late '50s and early '60s, Dr. Ruth Okey used radiolabeled compounds to show how diet affected lipid metabolism in animals. Fundamental research on pancreatic enzyme secretion and the action of trypsin inhibitors found in beans was done by Dr. Richard Lyman.

In the late 1960s, a 6-bed, live-in metabolic ward was established in Morgan Hall under the directorship of Dr. Doris Calloway and Dr. Sheldon Margen. “Penthouse” research was chiefly funded by NIH and NASA and it ceased operation when federal funds became restricted. Such units were expensive to maintain because they required an experienced, permanent support staff to conduct long-term experiments. Subjects lived exclusively in the unit for as long as 3 months.

The major emphases were human protein and mineral requirements, especially zinc, iron and calcium. The results of these studies provided information that has been basic to establishing the currently used Recommended Daily Allowances made by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council.

The Penthouse is still being used as a research facility, but it's mainly used on an outpatient basis. Nobody “lives in” on a long-term basis.

In the 1980s, Robert Stokstad studied availability of folic acid in foods and showed how vitamin B-12 and folic acid actions are interdependent. If you lack one, it disrupts functions of the other.

How have societal changes over the past 50 years influenced the Division?

MW: Because agriculture is not a major occupation in Berkeley, the urban population, in some cases, doesn't know how food is produced or what is required to maintain food production. People want to see hills, but they know little about the practical aspects of maintaining forests and wildlands.

I think much of the public discourse about natural resources and water is confusing and sometimes contradictory. For instance, we all want water and we all complain about agriculture using too much. We say that farmers are getting it too cheaply, and they're polluting the groundwater. But we still want cheap food, which requires inexpensive water as well as inexpensive labor.

A major problem in a highly urbanized state is that most residents have no first-hand experience with farming, so farmers are seen through the popular mythology — old and new. There is concern about family farms disappearing and yet, price supports and water subsidies appear to make farmers rich. During the phase of Silent Spring and “square tomatoes,” big farming, or agribusiness, was evil. And this notion persists despite the changes made in agricultural practices in response to the problems that environmental groups brought to the attention of the public.

Looking towards the future, what is the most important task for the Division and for the University?

MW: Water, because the water keeps everything going. Then the next thing is what I would call land management. I visit Germany frequently so I know that Germany has the size of California and twice the population. As you know, Central Europe has been crowded for a long time, so they know how to keep cities more livable and people-friendly, policies that reduce the need to sprawl into farmland or other open land.

Land that was agricultural is now being used for another subdivision. This is happening in Sacramento and San Jose because sales of land for houses will bring in more money immediately to the landowner than will agricultural use of the land. If we do that sort of thing there won't be any more agricultural land.

In your view, how has California Agriculture, the magazine, changed in its purpose and content over the last five decades?

MW: I think it's reflected the changes that have occurred within us, within agriculture in the state. The magazine and the Division have coped with change, and have changed. I feel that public perceptions of what we do have changed less. There are many people who think we're still chained to pesticides or chemical overfertilization.

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