"P. Mabel Nelson was a pioneering leader in the task of giving home economics a sound research base.  Her insistence on high standards in all her own work and in the work of her colleagues and students was important in establishing the Iowa State program among the leaders in the profession."

Patricia B. Swan, Vice-Provost for Research and Advanced Studies and Dean, Graduate College, Iowa State University


Precious Mabel Nelson was born 9 November 1887 in Brookston, Indiana.  Her family moved to California when she was four years old, and she considered herself a Californian.  She received her B.S. (1915) and M.S. (1916) from the University of California at Berkeley, and her Ph.D (1923) from Yale University.

Dr. Nelson was invited to continue her master's work in 1916, by Dr. Agnes Faye Morgan, the new Head of the Science Division of the new Home Economics division in the College of Arts and Sciences.  In 1919, she accepted the Currier Fellowship to work in physiological chemistry with Dr. Mendel at Yale, and she eventually became his laboratory assistant prior to earning her Ph.D.  During her time at Yale, Dr. Nelson shared a laboratory with Dr. Florence Seibert, who developed the skin test for tuberculosis.

Other students of Dr. Mendel's who went on to become leaders in Home Economics (and at Iowa State*) included Mary Swartz Rose, Icie Macy Hoobler, Amy Daniels (University of Iowa), Pearl Swanson*, and Ercel Eppright*.  

Dr. Nelson started as the first Ph.D. faculty member (1923) in the Home Economics Division and in 1926, she was named the head of the Foods and Nutrition Department (1926-1944).  In 1944, she was named the Dean of the Division of Home Economics.  In her research, Dr. Nelson concentrated on the vitamin content of foods, and she developed analysis methodology that improved the reliability of the statistics recorded.  During her time as Dean she focused on strengthening the research programs of the College (she hired Dr. Pearl Swanson and Dr. Ercel Eppright, both from the Yale Program), as well as education and outreach nutritional programs through extension and WOI Radio.  She retired in 1952. 

Based on: Dr. Patricia Swan. "P. Mabel Nelson: Scientist and Academician (1887-1963)
Forum, Volume 11 (2)  2000

Dr. Nelson belonged to numerous organizations and societies, including Sigma Xi, Iota Sigma Pi, the American Institute of Nutrition, the American Home Economics Association, the American Dietetics Association, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association of University Professors.

In Iowa, Dr. Nelson belonged to the The Iowa Homemaker publication board, the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs, Iowa Home Economics, and the Iowa Farm Safety Committee.



Presentation to the Medical Association of Iowa (1946)

Dean Nelson:  "Speaking of proteins, I have been interested in the recent investigations of their relation to resistance against disease.  Animals subjected to prolonged protein under-nutrition, exhibit a prolonged loss of capacity to make antibodies with which to fight bacteria and the products of their action.  Their anti-body producing ability can be quickly restored by the ingestion of adequate amounts of protein of good quality.  A striking relationship was also observed between the occurrance of low blood protein and this susceptibility to infection."

A letter from Beth Bailey McLean, an alumna and former faculty member of Iowa State


MacKay Hall, the College of Home Economics 
Building, ca. 1950

Presentations and Speeches by Dr. Nelson

Nutrition in National Defense
Iowa Public Health Association
May 8, 1941

"Why is it a nation with the abundance of food found in the U.S. should present the picture of malnutrition indicated from these military service figures; i.e. approximately one-third of our citizens (45 million people) not up to standard.  In spite of our abundance there have been "hidden hungers" among the population, slow and insidious, factors operating to destroy our efficiency."

Introductory Speech
4-H Annual Girls Club, 1947

"With the increasing speed at which the world is moving and I am not referring to this globe of ours, but rather to the increased speed at which we travel, send letters, food, tomato plants, and even baby chicks by air, hurry through the days from morning to night so we can hurry to church, to the movies, or the park.  So much hurry increases the hazards of living...All of this means that the young women of today must find a job in this changing world where she can acquire useful experience on a job before marriage and thus be prepared to carry on should tragedy overtake her family and cause a change of plans overnight."

Radio Program--WOI
Dairy Products from Standpoint of Homemaker
May 10, 1940

"It is always a pleasure to talk about the place of dairy products in the diet, because as a group of foods contributing to the health and well being of human beings, they are hard to beat.  In conclusion, let me say, to be sure that your child has a quart of milk, that every adult in the family has at least a pint, and this may be the sweet milk or one of the soured milks, such as buttermilk.  Then be sure each child and each adult has at least three pats of butter.  And don't forget that no dessert is better than ice cream or cheese of some kind--there are many interesting kinds of cheese, or you can alternate every few days with the ice creams, custard pie, tapioca puddings and any other good things that can be made of cream, milk, and eggs.

Invitation to Home Economics event, 1955

American Home Economics Association Life Member certificate, 1952


This letter from Dr. R.E. Buchanan articulates the high regard held for Dr. P. Mabel Nelson:

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Twentieth Century Women of Iowa State University
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