History Lesson: The First Dietitian for National Dairy Council

July 05, 2016

Ethel Austin Martin was not only a pioneer in nutrition, but also a leader in the profession of nutrition and dietetics and the first dietitian to work for National Dairy Council (NDC). An inspiration for all health and wellness professionals, Martin’s accomplishments remind us what an important role health and wellness professionals play in helping educate people about food, nutrition and health — based on sound science.

Ethel graduated from South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1916. When the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) was started in 1917, she began to think about pursuing a degree in dietetics. So she went to Columbia University in 1918 and completed her master’s degree in 1923 and became a dietitian (she pre-dated the credential of registered dietitian (RD)/ registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN)). She received an Honorary Doctorate from South Dakota State University, which resulted in our fondly calling her “Dr. Martin.”  

Martin served as the Director of Nutrition Services for NDC from 1929 until 1951. She wrote the first Dairy Council Digest in 1929 called, “Butter… A Protective Food, which focused on the importance of vitamin A in butter. The Digest discussed research on the impact of low vitamin A consumption, particularly during World War l, and also among the poor who did not have access to vitamin A sources, such as green vegetables and butter. At the time, Xerophthalmia and upper respiratory infections were observed in children and families who did not have access to butter and other vitamin A sources.

Her passion was translating nutrition research into tools for nutrition education. Below are just a few examples of the legacy that Ethel Austin Martin began for RDNs:

  • A major project of Martin that lives on to this day was the launch of an experimental nutrition education program in Akron, Ohio, that helped develop the concept of school lunch as a tool for nutrition education.
  • In 1930, the President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, invited Martin to represent NDC at the White House Conference, which focused on “Child Care and Protection.”  
  • She also helped develop “The Guide to Good Eating,” which pictured key components of an adequate eating plan.

Martin always based her writing on sound science, which continues to serve as the foundation for all NDC education and resources. She set the stage for NDC hiring dietitians to help educate people about food, nutrition and health. Last year, NDC celebrated its Centennial year and we now have over 100 RDNs in our network of national and local dairy councils!

I am fortunate to be one of those RDNs. At NDC I had the opportunity to meet Martin and listen to her stories about early nutrition, especially child nutrition. She inspired me to always write with accuracy and integrity. I have followed her guidance as I developed education programs, including Fuel Up to Play 60. Her work to launch the school lunch program has also inspired me to look for ways to provide nutrient-rich dairy foods to our neighbors facing food insecurity who rely on food banks through programs like the Great American Milk Drive