Welcome to a virtual tour of the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Today we are featuring materials exploring research and education about nutrition our bodies need to stay healthy.
These collections document how people have sought to maintain or improve their health. They document the research and recommendations of scientists, medical professionals, and public health officials about how to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle. These collections also reveal stories about personal responsibility and the intersection of individual and public health.
NLM staff have selected these highlights from the collections for you to explore. We welcome questions! Use the comment feature below to share your thoughts.
Selections from NLM Digital Collections
NLM Digital Collections is the National Library of Medicine’s free online repository of biomedical resources including books, manuscripts, and still and moving images.
Explore many nutrition-related images in NLM Digital Collections under these search terms:
You can also explore public domain images from the NLM prints and photographs collection on Flickr.
Books and Journals
The National Library of Medicine has digitized tens of thousands of books containing a wide variety of historical information about nutrition related to requirement and deficiencies, child health, food supply, and public health policy.
- Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum (A Salernitan Regimen of Health), in Latin and German, multiple locations, from 1482–1505
The Chemistry of Foods and Nutrition by W.O. Atwater. New York, 1887
- Note on Infantile Scurvy by Joseph Leidy, Jr. Boston, Massachusetts, 1896
- Science in the Kitchen by Ella Ervilla Kellogg. Battle Creek, Michigan, 1898
- The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, Vol I, Washington DC, 1921–1929
- A Symposium on the Effects of Soil Elements on Food by T.J. Brooks, Florida State Department of Agriculture. Tallahassee, Florida, 1945
- Nutrition—for Young and Old by the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Nutrition. Newburgh, New York, 1946
The nutritionists say, in effect: “We have the facts. All the facts we need to establish a sound nutrition program that will add strength to our bodies and years to our lives. What we need now is action. Action by our lawmakers and public administrators, on Federal, state and local levels, to translate our findings into public policy.”
A silent film produced in 1937 by Dr. David Bennett Hill, The Road to Health and Happiness, promotes leading a healthy, productive life and recommends particular rules to make this so. Among them is dedication to excellent nutrition. Recommended daily intake includes a quart of milk, six slices of bread, six teaspoons of butter, “two vegetables, twice daily,” and “meat, fish, liver…” to satisfy the appetite. Cod liver oil, phosphate, and calcium supplements are also recommended. Cod liver oil was a common means of ensuring adequate Vitamin D in the populations of northern Europe.
Often, there is also an emphasis on nutrition in films about dental health (Behind the Smile), diabetes (Joslin, Best, and Diabetes), infant care (Clocking a Champion), and military preparedness (Modern Nutrition, a Clinical Symposium).
NLM Exhibitions and Events
The National Library of Medicine curates stories about the social and cultural history of science and medicine that enhance awareness of and appreciation for the collections and health information resources of the National Library of Medicine. This work encourages enthusiasm for history and nurtures young professionals in the fields of history, the health professions, and biomedical sciences.
Explore scholarship at NLM around the history of medical explorations of nutrition.
Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America—Meals can tell us how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes. In the Chesapeake region during the colonial era, European settlers relied upon indentured servants, Native Americans, and African slave labor for life-saving knowledge of farming and food acquisition, and to gain economic prosperity. Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America peers into life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation and the labor of enslaved workers to learn about the ways that meals transcend taste and sustenance.
The Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Papers—Albert Imre Szent-Gyorgyi (1893-1986), a Hungarian-born biochemist, was the first to isolate vitamin C, and his research on biological oxidation provided the basis for Krebs’ citric acid cycle. His discoveries about the biochemical nature of muscular contraction revolutionized the field of muscle research. His later career was devoted to research in “submolecular” biology, applying quantum physics to biological processes. He was especially interested in cancer and was one of the first to explore the connections between free radicals and cancer. Szent-Gyorgyi won the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in biological oxidation and vitamin C, and the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research in 1954, for contributions to understanding cardiovascular disease through basic muscle research.
- Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of American Studies, University of Maryland College Park, College Park, MD, November 3, 2016
Other Resources on History and Nutrition
The FDA Notices of Judgment Collection is a digital archive of the published federal notices of judgment (a summary of the final outcome of a court case) for manufacturers and products prosecuted under authority of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The judgments summarize the government’s case about a product’s adulteration or misbranding and the court’s decision.
The Notices of Judgment are resources in themselves, but also lead users to a physical collection of the evidence files used to prosecute each case. An archival collection consisting of over 2,100 boxes of correspondence, legal records, lab reports, product labeling, photographs and other documentary evidence accumulated in case files by federal attorneys is also available for research.
Finding Aids to Archive and Manuscript Collections
Finding aids are the main access point and research support tool provided for the Archives and Modern Manuscripts, Prints and Photographs, and Films and Videos collections. These aids offer detailed descriptions of large aggregations of materials. Many of the collections contain content related to surgery, education, research, policy, and advocacy around matters of nutrition including:
- Charles Glen King Papers 1888-1995—Charles Glenn King (1896-1988) was a pioneer in the field of nutrition research. In 1927 King started research into what would become his most enduring contribution to the science of nutrition investigating the nature of vitamin C. With a group of graduate students he began isolating and purifying the substance by studying the antiscorbic activities of guinea pigs with preparations from lemon juice. As early as 1929 he began to associate the antiscorbutic chemical with hexuronic acid which had just been described by Albert Szent-Györgyi at Cambridge University. Szent-Györgyi would later win a Nobel Prize for his part in the discovery, and controversy remains over whether both men deserve equal credit. King later established the important functional role of vitamin B, and throughout his 40 year research career made many significant contributions in the areas of fats, enzymes and vitamins. King would author over 200 articles on good nutritional practices and the positive effects of vitamins. He was the first scientific director of the Nutrition Foundation, Inc., which worked to promote scientific and public health research, both in the U.S. and internationally.
- Joseph Goldberger Papers 1909–1940—Joseph Goldberger earned his medical degree at New York City’s Bellevue College in 1895. Wanting to play a more dynamic role in medicine, he left his private practice and joined the U.S. Marine Hospital Service as an Assistant Surgeon in 1899. He spent the next fifteen years in the field working to eradicate epidemics of yellow fever, typhoid fever, dengue fever, and typhus in the United States and Central America. In 1914 the Surgeon General selected Goldberger to determine the cause of pellagra. His research successfully demonstrated that the condition was dietary in origin and largely the result of vitamin B (niacin) deficiency. Controversy followed his conclusions. Much of the medical community was unwilling to concede that pellagra was not a germ-based disease. The means for pellagra’s eradication, an improved diet for poor southern farmers, implied a need for social improvement, a theory that many resisted.
Dr. Pamela Peeke Biography, Changing the Face of Medicine
With her expertise in nutrition science, Pamela M. Peeke, M.D., has combined her medical practice and scientific training to become a nationally recognized expert on healthy lifestyle choices. “While Hippocrates regarded nutrition and lifestyle as inseparable from medicine,” Dr. Peeke has written, “the number of physicians who are educated and trained in both medicine and nutrition is minuscule. We physicians who are nutrition specialists are the oddballs at the party because we regard nutrition as integral to health, longevity, and prevention of disease.”
Dr. Kathryn Ann Morsea Biography, Changing the Face of Medicine
With a special interest in the benefits of a traditional American Indian diet, family practitioner Kathryn A. Morsea, M.D., incorporates traditional healing practices into her patient care. In order to raise her daughter and practice medicine within a Navajo community, she is a practitioner of family medicine in Gallup, New Mexico.
A Treatise on the Scurvy by James Lind, 1757
NLM holds a copy of this earliest study of nutritional deficiency disease in sailors, recommending consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially citrus as a preventive.
A wealth of medical history awaits your exploration in the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) free and full-text digital archive of journals PubMed Central (PMC)! Known to most of its users as a free, full-text archive of recent biomedical journals, PMC also reaches back in time over two centuries.
Access the full text of a wide range of early journal articles on nutrition. For example:
- “The Treatment and Prevention of Pellagra,” by Joseph Goldberger, C. H. Waring, and David Willets, in Public Health Reports 29 (Oct. 23, 1914)
- Grade level: 3–5
- Subject: health education
The lesson uses an apple pie recipe from a primary source—a 1773 publication—included in the online exhibition Fire and Freedom. From the recipe of a well-known dessert, students are guided to consider how a dessert fits into a healthy, balanced meal. Students learn about the visual representations of the five food groups and relative portions illustrated by the USDA’s MyPlate diagram.
Example for Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World exhibition.
This culinary literacy public program example explores how public librarians could host cooking classes using MedlinePlus’s healthy recipes to promote MedlinePlus as a source for reliable health information about common herbs and other plants as an activity associated with the NLM traveling Exhibition Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine in Harry Potter’s World.
Current Health Information and Research
For current, trusted information to help you manage your own nutrition please visit NLM’s online health information resource MedlinePlus.
- BOND-KIDS: Biomarkers of Nutrition for Development – Knowledge Indicating Dietary Sufficiency (Working Group 1 Discussion), March 4, 2022
- NHLBI Obesity, Nutrition and Physical Activity Seminar: The Role of Teaching Kitchens in Addressing Nutritional Disparities and Implementation Research, Dr. Nicole Farmer, MD, NIH intramural investigator, December 14, 2021
- Exploring the Science Surrounding the Safe Use of Bioactive Ingredients in Infant Formula: Considerations for an Assessment Framework (Day 1), September 23, 2021
- 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, First Meeting (Day 1), June 13, 2015
- Gluten Disorders: Scientific, Dietary, and Consumer Education Perspectives, in honor of National Nutrition Month, the NIH Division of Nutrition Research Coordination sponsored a Mini-Symposium, March 22, 2013
- Overweight and Obesity – Public and Scientific Challenges and Perspectives, Kickoff event for the second annual NIH Health and WEllness Expo, September 7, 2011
The NLM Collection Tours series provides highlights from the diverse historical collections of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) on a variety of contemporary topics in health and medicine. Some library services, such as our scan on demand service are temporarily suspended due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but staff are available to answer questions.