Gallatin’s Dr. Icie Macy Hoobler a Renown Nutritionist Impacting Pre-Natal Care

Women played an important role in the development of north Missouri?s prairies since frontier days. Gallatin was the home of one of the most distinguished pioneers in nutrition and human health as our nation matured.

Women played an important role in the development of North Missouri’s prairies since frontier days. Gallatin, MO, was the home of one of the most distinguished pioneers in nutrition and human health as our nation matured.

Icie Macy Hoobler was among the first to recognize the role of nutrition in human reproduction and growth. She became nationally known, spending more than half of her life in Michigan to direct and guide programs that endure today in the educational, public health, and medical practices here and throughout the world.

Gallatin native Dr. Icie Macy Hoobler (1892-1984) was a scientific leader in recognizing the role of nutrition in human reproduction and growth.

In 1923, in cooperation with the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, she helped establish the Nutrition Research Laboratory of the Merrill Palmer School and was director of chemical and biological research. In 1931, the Laboratory was transferred to the Children’s Fund of Michigan. Dr. Hoobler continued as director of nutrition research until the Children’s Fund completed its work in 1954.

At that time, the original unpublished laboratory data was deposited in the Merrill Palmer School were Dr. Hoobler remained as a consultant.

It was in these laboratories, under her dedicated direction that some of the world’s classic studies in nutrition and human growth were conducted. She was the first to do metabolic studies on pregnant and lactating women. And the results of these studies provided the major data on which the National Research Council established its recommended dietary allowances for pregnancy and lactation.

A press photo of Dr. Icie Macy Hoobler (center) taken in 1947. Dr. Hoobler determined the most effective means of enhancing dairy milk with Vitamin D, which proved essential to the fight against rickets. Her analysis of breast milk composition unveiled its vitamin and antibody content and uncovered the lack of a mother-baby boundary for artificial compounds like alcohol or drugs. She carried out experiments in nutrition that allowed the government to formulate meals for poor children that cured scurvy and growth irregularities. Through her studies of the mother-fetus dyad, she determined the crucial role of pre-natal care in child and mother health.

Icie Macy Hoobler, an outstanding chemist, completed four academic degrees and was a member of 18 scientific societies. She was the first woman selected as chairman of a division of the American Chemical Society and was director of the Children’s Fund of Michigan for more than 20 years — not bad for a rural Daviess County girl who persevered in nutritional science at a time when females were not considered qualified to set foot in a research laboratory!

Dr. Hoobler returned to Gallatin in failing health. She was a member of Gallatin United Methodist Church. She died at Highlands Nursing Home in Gallatin on Jan. 6, 1984.  An obituary published by the New York Times on Jan. 13, 1984 reads as follows:

Dr. Icie Macy Hoobler, an authority on nutrition and child growth who was the first woman to head a division of the American Chemical Society, died last Friday in Gallatin, Mo. She was 91 years old.

Dr. Hoobler rose to prominence in the field of biological chemistry in the 1930’s, when she conducted extensive work on child development at Children’s Village in Redford, Mich. In recognition of her investigations on food chemistry and particularly for her studies of the effect of diet on the composition of mother’s milk, the American Chemical Society awarded her the Francis P. Garvan Medal honoring women in chemistry in 1946.

A native of Gallatin, she received bachelor’s degrees from the Central College for Women and the University of Chicago, a master’s degree from the University of Colorado, and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1920.

In 1923 Dr. Hoobler began what was to be her major life’s work at the Merrill Palmer Institute, a school in Detroit. Seven years later she became the first director of the research laboratory of the Children’s Fund of Michigan, where her studies of nutritional patterns of mothers and children won national attention. In World War II she was a member of the National Research Council’s Food and Nutrition Board.

Dr. Hoobler was a former president of the American Institute of Nutrition, a fellow of the American Institute of Chemists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Public Health Association. She was the first female member of the Detroit Engineering Society.

After retirement from active research, she was a founder of Grand Valley College in Michigan. In 1982 she moved back to Gallatin, MO. Her husband, Dr. B. Raymond Hoobler, a Detroit pediatrician, to whom she was married in 1938, died in 1943. There are no immediate survivors.

At the start of Dr. Hoobler’s career, the most advanced facilities screened milk for twelve chemical factors. By the time her studies were in full swing, over two hundred separate components had been identified and catalogued according to their changing concentration over the course of nursing. If Vitamin D milk is a commonplace now, while rickets, once the scourge of America’s slums, is not, much of the thanks for that must go to Dr. Macy.
In August of 1982, Dr. Hoobler published a book about her life’s work entitled “Boundless Horizons: Portrait of a Pioneer Woman Scientist.”

The following is taken from an online post written by Dale DeBakcsy dated Nov. 16, 2016. It is entitled…

Milk and Blood: Icie Macy Hoobler and the Science of Infant-Mother Nutrition. (Women in Science 77)

A young mother of the early twentieth century who couldn’t or didn’t want to breast feed was a creature entirely at the hands of bumbling chance.  Doctors of the era prescribed individually concocted replacement formula recipes based on a mixture of patchwork research, folk wisdom, and personal idiosyncracy.  The most scientific among them considered three factors and three alone: proteins, fats, and carbs.  The vitamin and antibody content of milk went blithely unmeasured until poor growth rates, scurvy, and rickets became so endemic in lower income households that a new, rigorous approach to infant nutrition, and the mother-fetus dyad, was required.  The woman at the head of that approach was a pioneer farm girl turned biochemist by the name of Icie Macy (1892-1984).

Her early life reads like a Laura Ingalls Wilder book.  Born on a remote form in Gallatin, Missouri in 1892, her first years were filled with the daily chores of rural life, with preparing food for preservation in the root cellar, harnessing horses for harvest, and occasionally mourning the passing of a beloved cow struck by lightning.  Dirt roads, outhouses, and country piety were the matter of her early memories – those, and a profound curiosity about nature’s workings.  How do seeds grow?  How does a chick develop and hatch?

For many country girls, that curiosity went spectacularly unfulfilled, but Macy’s parents believed stoutly in education and progress.  Her father was at the head of every effort to bring technology to Gallatin, laying down electrical lines and paving roads, and he insisted that, so long as his daughter had the drive to learn, he would do whatever he could to ensure her the means.  “In the future we may not be able to provide you with many material things or wealth,” her parents said, “but if we can encourage and provide an endowed education we are giving you something that cannot be taken from you.”

Like Florence Sabin, her first dream was a musical career but, again like Sabin, she came to a point where she felt mere technical prowess could take her no further.  She hated performing, and doubted her ability to meaningfully interpret the music beyond the correctness of the notes, and with her father’s blessing switched her major from music to English.  English, however, was a choice of convenience, as she came to realize her true passion lay in science, and in particular in the rapidly developing field of biochemistry. Her college career coincided with the heady days of the Vitamin Revolution, when the connection between vitamin deficiency and physical abnormality was being uncovered by a dedicated but often mocked cadre of scientists attempting to bring the insights of chemistry to the study of biology.

Macy was encouraged by her professors to not settle for a career as an underappreciated teacher, but to explore her gift for original research, and her early experiences in the classroom reinforced that decision.  Though she attempted to make light of it, the daily harassment she endured as a woman science professor burns through the pages of her memoirs:

In those years of my youth I blushed readily and radiantly.  My associates and students had great fun in stimulating my red face and neck.  At times I was forced to fight back to retain my womanly dignity and self-respect but usually I could muster some humor and accept the trauma without too much annoyance.  Most of the students assigned to my sections of freshman chemistry were older than the usual freshman.  Many were returning soldiers of World War I.  Some resented having a woman teacher much less a young blushing upstart of a girl.  Other students were less earnest and younger, were delighted to sit in the front row of seats looking up into the blushing face of their teacher, making wisecracks to increase the intensity of the color.  This was traumatic at times until I regained my self-respect and gathered courage and determination to demonstrate to the class that a woman chemistry teacher was capable of teaching, even grown men just back from war.

Even when she was free of disrespectful students, her battle with casual institutional sexism was hardly done.  As a researcher at a Pittsburgh hospital in 1920, she faced both of the undersung horrors of pioneering professional women: bathrooms and cafeterias.

It might sound trivial, but the roll call of absurd indignities experienced by early women scientists at the hands of these two facilities could fill its own article.  Macy’s case is a typical one.  Her hospital had bathroom facilities for male staff only, and so informed her that, if she needed a restroom, she would have to use a public toilet a half-block away.  That would involve leaving her post for an extended time and, since she didn’t want to get criticized for being absent, she did what so many women did in similar circumstances – she held it and only went to the restroom when absolutely necessary, developing an acute case of nephritis as a result that required months to recover from.

Meanwhile, in the cafeteria she was forbidden from eating with the male doctors, and regulations prevented her from eating with the nurses.  So, a place was eventually found with her at the worker’s cafeteria, except that her schedule didn’t match theirs, so she was reduced to eating whatever leftovers were to be had after their lunch, alone in an empty room.

She was, at this time, a doctor with a PhD from Yale, a highly gifted lab researcher doing important work in the emerging field of nutrition, and yet she was reduced to scavenging for leftovers, and ruining her kidneys, all for the sake of institutional prudery.  It was a low point in her career and, though the president of the hospital eventually interceded on her behalf to remove the worst of the impositions, better times didn’t truly come until an offer arrived from UC Berkeley to teach under the expert guidance of home economics giant Agnes Fay Morgan.

She was not long in that post, however, before a call came from the newly established Merrill-Palmer School in Michigan to head their nutritional research division.  That institution was established with the goal of improving the lot of children through a thorough study of the nutritional needs of mothers, fetuses, and infants.  It was an ideal job for Macy, with her focus on the intersection of children’s welfare, chemistry, and public policy.

Here, and at its successor institution, the Children’s Fund of Michigan Research Division, she served for five decades, driving research into the chemical components that make infants develop normally, and dispelling the haze of rumor and half-practice that dominated pediatric practice previously.

Not surprisingly, much of her research focused on the composition of breast milk to determine the links between the mother’s nutritional needs and the infant’s growth.  At the start of her career, the most advanced facilities screened milk for twelve chemical factors.  By the time her studies were in full swing, over two hundred separate components had been identified and catalogued according to their changing concentration over the course of nursing.

She put definitively to rest a prevailing slice of wisdom about the superiority of Jersey over Holstein milk and, more importantly, carried out tests about how best to enrich milk with Vitamin D while also conducting studies about the optimal amount needed to prevent rickets without a toxic vitamin overdose.  If Vitamin D milk is a commonplace now, while rickets, once the scourge of America’s slums, is not, much of the thanks for that must go to Macy.

But maybe it takes more to impress you than the eradication of a disease that grotesquely twisted the development of thousands of children annually.  Very well, then.  Macy’s studies of the effects of deficiency of all vitamins led directly to the development of nutritive supplements for the children of low income families that all but eliminated scurvy as well (some parents chose to use their children’s lemon allotment to flavor their cocktails, as it turned out, thus the “all but”).  550 children over the course of her study received some 280 tons of milk, 28 tons of vegetable soup, 5 tons of fruit, 2.5 tons of lemon juice powder/martini enhancer, and 300 gallons of cod liver oil (for its high vitamin D content).

Her studies of the varying composition of blood during an infant’s development led to the discovery of hemoglobin deficiency in many African American children which in turn led to improved anemia screening practices, while her studies of breast milk determined that, while a mother produces natural barriers to make sure her child does not receive toxic overdoses of vitamins, there are no such barriers for artificial chemicals or drugs.  These studies then prepared the way for an appreciation of the unique health problems facing children of alcoholic or drug-addicted mothers.

And not only all of that, but she also established a correlation between access to pre-natal care and the subsequent health and growth of the baby, the statistics from which contributed to the push for universal access to such care regardless of ability to pay, which lowered the birth risks to both mother and child and made our world of regular pregnancy check-up screenings a reality.

Somewhere in the midst of those vital studies, she married Dr. Raymond Hoobler.  She was 46, and he was 66, and seems something of a George Babbitt, but he treated her well enough and, most importantly, supported her fully in continuing her career.  They lived happily through the five years they had together before his death.  She never re-married but devoted herself increasingly to large-scale nutrition projects, including a trip to India where she records herself as being astounded to find that, yes, women of other faiths seemed to care about their children’s health too.  (Her unconscious assumption that virtue is a unique property of Christians is one of her memoir’s less charming aspects.)

She began in a world that barely knew what milk was and ended by not only exhaustively analyzing its shifting composition, and not only detailing the extent and limits of a mother’s chemical barriers, but perfecting methods to produce milk that would eliminate one of childhood’s most ghastly diseases.  Her work made care of the mother from the onset of pregnancy a priority, and showed the impact of food and shock on a child’s development, and her larger nutritional studies provided baselines for nutritive value that made governmental relief programs for poor children a targeted force for large scale good.

And yet, in spite of the massive boon her work was for civilization, my guess is that most of us haven’t heard of Ice Macy-Hoobler.  Because she worked with children, and child nutrition is a part of “women’s science,” and women’s science somehow doesn’t count.  Like Ellen Swallow, she was a researcher whose impact was measured in the millions of lives her work saved and enriched rather than in acclaim, and for her, if not for our own sense of justice, that was enough.

Icie Macy Hoobler served on the Grand Valley State Colleges Board of Control from 1960-1968. Until recently, the Icie Macy Hoobler Living Center was built in 1987 as part of the Grand Valley State University campus. In February, 2015, University officials approved the construction of a new housing and academic building which involved tearing down the old 50-bed Hoobler Living Center. A portion of the new building, North B, is now the new Icie Macy Hoobler Living Center.