Prof. Emeritus Michael C. Latham, international nutrition, an expert on nutritional improvement in the developing world, died on April 1 at the age of 82.
According to Prof. Patrick J. Stover, director of the nutrition division, Latham’s legacy lives on through his actions at Cornell and around the world.
“Michael has always been about a voice for the poor, a voice for the impoverished, especially in the developing world,” Stover said. “He always challenged the establishment for common sense solutions.”
Latham was born in Kilosa, British Tanganyika, now Tanzania, and moved around the country with his father, a doctor in the British colonial service, until attending college at Trinity College in Dublin. He earned degrees from Harvard University, London University and Trinity College in Dublin, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 for his work in Tanzania. He was hired at Cornell in 1968 as a professor in the nutrition program.
Latham’s most recent published work evaluated the effectiveness of vitamin A supplements in reducing child mortality in developing nations. In May 2010, Latham published an article in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association titled “The Great Vitamin A Fiasco.” In this paper, Latham claimed that pharmaceutical companies had blocked replacing vitamin A supplements with a food-based program in order to preserve the market for supplements.
According to Suzanne Gervais ’06, senior extension associate in the nutrition division, Latham was also heavily involved in the fight against marketing infant formula to poor and developing nations.
“There is no question now that breastfeeding is the best way to get the proper nutrients to infants,” Gervais said. “Michael brought scientific proof to show that, in places where poverty prevents women from properly using infant formula, aggressive marketing by industrial food giants like Nestlé actually contributed to a rise in infant mortality.”
In addition to his advocacy and research, Latham also greatly impacted Cornell’s nutrition programs, according to Stover.
“Within Cornell he founded the International Program in Nutrition, which has trained many students — especially international students — who are now the health and food policy decision makers throughout Africa and South East Asia,” Stover said.
Latham’s work continued long after he founded the international nutrition program. In remembering Latham, faculty in the nutrition division described his activism even as an emeritus professor.
“He was very active until the end. He has a paper on combating HIV/AIDS that has just been accepted for publication,” Gervais said.
“By the time that I became director, Michael was already retired, but he was very active in his emeritus position,” Stover said. “He was caring. He never asked for anything for himself. He always had the courage of his convictions. He was never afraid to start a controversy if he thought it was the right thing to do.”
According to Stover, much of Latham’s advocacy was on behalf of students.
“He would come to me if he had concerns about an individual student. He cared deeply about students and he had a special place in his heart for students from developing countries and their success,” Stover said.
In emails to Stover, Latham often recounted the work he had done for graduate and undergraduate students. In addition to serving as the chair of Ph.D. special committees for two graduate students, Latham was also the faculty advisor to Cornell Health International, the largest undergraduate organization concentrating on global health.
“He made broad contributions to nutrition at all levels: local, national, and international,” Gervais said. “He was a living legend.”