The history of the nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto spans more than a century and is marked by progressive transformations that continue to promote the study of the discipline. The teaching of the nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto began in 1896 with the Lillian Massey School of Domestic Science and Art, which became the Department of Household Science within the University of Toronto in 1902. Four years later, in the first of several transformations, the Faculty of Household Science was formed. In 1912 the faculty moved into the Lillian Massey Building, which still stands today at the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor St. The building is named after Lillian Massey Treble, who donated half a million dollars towards its construction. Inscribed on the interior wall of the Avenue Road entrance is the following:
“This tablet is erected by the Board of Governors to commemorate the liberality of Mrs. Lillian Massey Treble who presented this building to the University of Toronto in order to promote the work of Household Science and thereby to further the education of women.”
The building housed a gymnasium and swimming pool for female students, who at the time could not use the facilities at Hart House.
Members of the Faculty of Household Science included Annie Lewisa Laird and Clara Cynthia Benson. They were among first women awarded doctorates at University of Toronto and among the first women to achieve the rank of associate professor. A strong believer in the value of household science as a “combination of science and art” Dr. Annie Laird was at the helm of the Faculty Household Science for 34 years. In her leadership role, she was referred to as the faculty director or secretary, but never given the title of dean. Today, undergraduates, who achieve academic excellence in nutritional sciences, continue to be awarded the Annie L. Laird Prize in Nutrition and Food Science.
Dr. Clara Benson developed the program of study in food chemistry as the chair of the Food Chemistry Department from 1926 until her retirement in 1945. In addition to her accomplishments in the area of food chemistry, Dr Benson was an advocate for women’s athletics at the university and became the first president of the Women’s Athletic Association in 1921. In 1959 the Benson Building, named in her honour, became the centre of women’s athletics at the University of Toronto. Many household science students also had the pleasure of being taught by Professor Edna W. Park. Her half century career as a teacher was recognized by the Household Science Alumni Association in 1974 with the first Edna W. Park lecture. This lecture remains, to this day, a major event in the nutritional sciences calendar at the University of Toronto.
After 60 years of household science at the University of Toronto, an important change occurred in November 1962, when the faculty’s name was changed to Faculty of Food Sciences, a better reflection of the science-oriented courses offered at the time. Students in the Faculty of Food Sciences could study in one of four areas of specialization: nutrition and dietetics; food chemistry; community development; and textiles. Another transformation was soon to occur. In the early 1970’s the University of Toronto began a major re-organization of the Faculty of Medicine, School of Hygiene and Faculty of Food Sciences. The Faculty of Food Sciences was officially dissolved on June 30, 1975 and the last undergraduates to receive a BSc (Food Sciences) degree from the University of Toronto graduated in the spring of 1978.
The end of the Faculty of Food Sciences saddened many of the students who had studied in the Lillian Massey Building over the decades. Graduates from both the Faculty of Household Science and the Faculty of Food Sciences played an instrumental role in promoting nutrition and food research and the profession of dietetics over the years. The end of one era, however, always gives rise to the beginning of another. The undergraduate departments of nutrition and dietetics and food chemistry from the Faculty of Food Sciences were combined with the graduate department of nutrition from the School of Hygiene to form the new Department of Nutrition and Food Science in the University’s Faculty of Medicine.
This new department now offered an undergraduate program in nutrition to students enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At the graduate level, students could conduct nutrition research and work toward MSc and/or PhD degrees. In addition, it offered a new Master of Health Science degree (MHSc.) in Community Nutrition, a program in the newly-formed School of Public Health. These programs continue to be offered today, with the MHSc being recently renamed a Master of Public Health (MPH).
The new department was located in the FitzGerald Building at Queen’s Park and College, close to the Medical Sciences Building and the teaching hospitals of University Avenue, where it continues to reside today. The Lillian Massey Building, is no longer home to students studying nutrition but continues to serve the community as home to a popular retailer, government offices, and university departments. The first chair of the newly-formed Department of Nutrition and Food Science was George H. Beaton. In 1980 under the chairmanship of Dr. G.H. Anderson the department was renamed the Department of Nutritional Sciences.
The positioning of the Department of Nutritional Sciences within the Faculty of Medicine allows it to blend basic science research with clinical investigations and public health issues in a way that is unique in Canada. The newly-formed department of the 1970’s was relatively small, but over the last 40 years, by using strategic recruiting of core faculty, cross-appointments and status-only members the critical mass of scientists within the department has expanded dramatically, to create, today, a breadth of academic practice that does not exist in any other Canadian department of nutrition.
The Department of Nutritional Sciences is home to some of the world’s most accomplished, innovative and reputable researchers. The department’s interests includes the basic sciences, such as nutritional genomics and epigenetics, applied and clinical research, including observational studies and intervention trials on the relationship between diet and disease, and public health nutrition policy. The department plays a pivotal role in educating academic, industrial and political leaders as well as the public. It offers a unique environment where ideas are challenged and theories developed. It also excels above any institution for its rigorous and productive training environment.
Building on its success new transformations are on the horizon. The Department of Nutritional Sciences has set an ambitious goal of housing an institute of nutrition in a world-class, large-scale research facility. The creation of an Institute would allow researchers, clinicians and population health experts alike to work together and share their complementary expertise in nutritional sciences, medical sciences, food and nutrition policy, public health, genomics, agriculture, and economics. Nowhere else in Canada would scientists work in such close conjunction with other clinical and academic partners to advance discovery into practice. Both the depth and breadth of research ability would be unparalleled.
The history of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto had its humble beginning in the 19th century. In the 21st century, the Department of Nutritional Sciences will continue to create new knowledge and to promote the implementation of this new nutritional knowledge to improve human health.