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International nutritionist Michael Latham, champion of the marginalized, dies at 82

Memorial service

A memorial for Michael Latham will be held Sunday, July 3, at 12:30 p.m. in Sage Chapel. At 2:30 p.m., snacks will be provided at the Cayuga Nature Center for those who would like to convene to share memories of Latham. This will be followed by a catered dinner to be served at 6 p.m. RSVP to Latham's son, Mark, at marklath@umich.edu.

Dr. Michael Latham, professor emeritus and graduate school professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell who directed the Cornell Program in International Nutrition for 25 years and taught nutrition at Cornell for 36 years, died in Boston April 1 of pneumonia at age 82.

Latham mentored more than 200 graduate students, many from developing countries, who went on to not only to lead fruitful careers as scientists, academics or technologists but also to advocate for the causes of the most vulnerable.

Author or co-author of some 450 publications, including the books "Human Nutrition in Tropical Africa," "Human Nutrition in the Developing World" and "Kilimanjaro Tales: The Saga of a Medical Family in Africa," Latham focused his work on breastfeeding, infant and child health; parasitic infections and their relationship to health; micronutrient deficiencies, especially iron deficiency anemia and vitamin A deficiency; and nutrition and human rights.

In 1963, he began drawing attention to the consequences of replacing breastfeeding by commercial infant formula in poor countries and was later at the forefront of the more than decade-long battle against the marketing of infant formula by corporations in poor countries until this marketing was regulated in 1981. In 1991 he co-founded the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action to promote breastfeeding; and for more than three decades, he explored the impact of helminthic and schistosomiasis parasitic infections on child growth, anemia and labor productivity.

As early as 1968 Latham was shedding light on the importance of distinguishing between acute and chronic malnutrition. More recently, he worked to alert colleagues to the pitfalls of relying on costly magic bullets such as ready-to-use-therapeutic foods and the blanket distribution of vitamin A capsules to prevent malnutrition.

Born May 6, 1928, and raised in Tanzania, Latham received his bachelor's degree in 1949 and his medical degree in 1952, both from Dublin University, Ireland. In 1958 he received an advanced degree in tropical medicine from London University; in 1965, a master's degree in public health and nutrition from Harvard University; and he was named an honorary fellow, Faculty of Community Medicine, in 1973 from the Royal College of Physicians.

He was first medical officer, then director of nutrition in the Ministry of Health in Tanzania (1955-64); served on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health (1964-68); and in 1968, at age 39, joined Cornell as a full professor in the Program in International Nutrition, the only such U.S. professorship. Under his leadership, the program grew in breadth, depth and influence, and soon became known as one of the best and largest programs of its kind in the world.

Latham received numerous honors, including: the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1965 for his work on developing the nutrition unit in Tanzania and for his leadership in establishing the International School, an integrated primary school in Dar es Salaam; the American Society of Nutritional Sciences Kellogg Prize in International Nutrition; the Gopalan Gold Medal from the Nutrition Society of India; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Public Health Association; the U.N. Special Committee on Nutrition Order of Merit in recognition of outstanding lifelong contributions and service to nutrition; and the title of "living legend" at the International Congress of Nutrition in 2009, in Bangkok.

He frequently served as a consultant in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank and the White House. In 1994 he advised Fidel Castro on how to curb Cuba's neuropathy epidemic.

Recognized as a champion of the underprivileged and marginalized, Latham was a supporter of nuclear disarmament in the 1950s, marched against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and strongly opposed U.S. ambitions in Latin America and Africa. In the 1980s he was involved in the efforts of faculty and students to persuade Cornell to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. In 2004 Latham retired, but he remained active professionally, traveling around the world as invited speaker and mentor and publishing in scientific journals.

He is survived by his life partner, Lani Stephenson, retired Cornell associate professor of nutritional sciences, and two sons.

A memorial and conference in his honor will be held in Ithaca in the early summer.

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