Flemmie Kittrell (1904-1980) revolutionized child health and nutrition. In 1936, she became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and the first to earn a PhD. in Nutrition. In honour of her achievements and to recognize Black History Month, Kittrell is featured on the BC Food History Network.
She was the eighth of nine children of a poor sharecropper family in North Carolina. One of her sisters died of pellagra a disease purely caused by lack of niacin. At age 11 Flemmie Kittrell started working as a cook and maid and she used the income to pay for her education over the years. Initially Kittrell thought study of the home and family was too ordinary. Then her high school teacher gave her a book written by Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the United States’ earliest professional chemists. Kittrell came to believe that the home and family were the basis of society, and education in home economics provided the key to good living, national and global peace.
Kittrell took a holistic approach to nutrition and advanced food security well before it became trendy. A 2023 article in The Conversation (1) stated the ways in which Kittrell shattered traditional assumptions about home economics. She believed it was much more than cooking and sewing.
Headstart Programs came about through Kittrell’s endeavours in the 1960s. Nutrition and democracy were closely linked in her world view. She strategized and “was not afraid to speak against evil”.
Flemmie Kittrell represented the U.S. in several countries including Liberia. She had a strong sense of justice and once staged a fly-in to South Africa in 1967 when apartheid was in full force.
Lost Women of Science features a podcast with Flemmie Kittrell. In her research with children in poverty, she created an outstanding preschool for African American children.
In honour of Flemmie Kittrell, please take a look at one or more of the articles.