March 15, 2006

Chicken Innovator Prof. Baker '43 Dies

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Prof. Robert C. Baker ’43, famous for inventing the chicken nugget died Monday at the age of 84. Baker was a member of Cornell’s faculty in the departments of food science and poultry science for 40 years. Over the course of his tenure, he developed 47 new poultry meat and egg products and published 290 scientific papers.

The products he developed include chicken and turkey hot dogs and various kinds of cold cuts, in addition to chicken nuggets. Baker traveled to 24 different nations to work with food companies to develop these products and became known as the “Edison of the poultry industry.”

Baker was inducted into the American Poultry Hall of Fame in January 2004 in recognition of his work in the agricultural industry.

Nearly 60 years ago, Baker wanted to come up with a way to sell more chicken, so he developed his own barbeque sauce and opened a barbequed chicken stand at the New York State Fair.

“It’s a vinegar, oil and eggs-based recipe that was designed to increase chicken and egg sales,” said Reenie Sandsted, Baker’s daughter, at the 1996 New York State Fair.

According to a Cornell press release in August 1999, then-president William Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea specifically visited the Bakers’ Chicken Coop eatery to taste the famous Cornell barbecued chicken at that year’s New York State Fair.

When first presented with a basket of apples, the President said, “Those apples look good, but where’s the chicken?”

One of Baker’s daughters immediately gave Clinton an order of eight Cornell barbecued chicken breasts.

“Clinton didn’t leave without rendering his position on the Cornell barbeque recipe. As he got into the car to tour the rest of the fair, the president turned to Sandsted and Baker – and gave a big thumbs up,” the press release stated.

Baker was born on Dec. 29, 1921 and was raised in Newark, N.Y. He majored in pomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, received a master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1949 and a doctorate from Purdue University in 1956. Baker worked briefly for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County, N.Y., becoming interest in the 4H program, and was eventually employed by the National Poultry Improvement Plan to select breeders to improve poultry stock.

Later, he became an assistant professor of poultry science at Pennsylvania State University, and in 1949, Baker became an assistant professor at Cornell in the Department of Poultry Science. In 1957, he became a founder and professor of the Department of Food Science and served as founder and first director of Cornell’s Institute of Food Science in Marketing in 1970.

Baker retired from Cornell in 1989. Since retirement, Baker, his wife Jackie and daughter Regina operated Bakers’ Acres of North Lansing, N.Y., as growers of flowers, herbs, shrubs and trees over 25 acres of land.

Baker has won over a dozen awards, including the Outstanding Alumni Award from Cornell, the Distinguished Service Award from the New York State Agricultural Society, the Research Award from the Institute of American Industries and the Excellence in Science Award from the National Marketing Association.

Archived article by Sun Staff