Cecile Hoover Edwards
Portrait of Edwards taken for the 1972 Alumni Centennial Award from Iowa State University. Courtesy Iowa State University Library/Special Collections Department.
From the time she was in college, Cecile Hoover Edwards (1926–2005) knew she wanted to improve the health of lower-income Americans by improving their diets, and she dedicated her career to doing just that.
Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Edwards entered college when she was only 15, enrolling at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, the historically black school made famous by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, among others. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, she went on to earn her doctorate in nutrition from Iowa State University. She married Gerald Alonzo in 1952, then joined the faculty of Tuskegee the next year. In 1971 Edwards left Tuskegee for Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was dean of the School of Human Ecology from 1974 to 1986, and where she remained until her retirement in 2000. Edwards established the Ph.D. program in nutrition at Howard, the only one of its kind in the United States at a predominantly African American university.
Edwards studied amino acids, which the body takes from food and uses to make proteins. As a graduate student and beyond, she investigated a particular amino acid named methionine. She was especially concerned to find the right combinations of low-cost foods (namely, vegetables rather than meats) that would result in optimal protein production. Operating on the principle that the protein efficiency of a diet is greater when all of the essential amino acids are consumed at the same meal, Edwards used her knowledge of amino acids in vegetable foods to help her determine how to make the best meals for the least money.
The diets of African Americans were of special interest to her, and she devoted a great deal of time to researching the traditional southeastern American diet. Though very high in fat, traditional southern cuisine also contained excellent sources of protein, such as lima beans and black-eyed peas. In her nutrition plans, Edwards attempted to modify the traditional diet by retaining the healthy aspects but cutting down on the fat.
How diet affected pregnant women and their unborn children also concerned Edwards. She spent much of her later career researching the diets of disadvantaged, pregnant African American women in order to improve the health of both mothers and children. Her research also looked beyond nutrition to other factors such as lifestyle and psychological health.
In 1984 the State of Illinois declared April 5 to be “Dr. Cecile Hoover Edwards Day.”
She died in 2005, survived by her three children and their offspring.