Food scientist Jerome Van Buren dies at 96

Jerome Van Buren ’50, M.S. ’51, Ph.D. ’54, whose work to preserve the nutritional quality of foods benefited growers and consumers in New York and around the world, died Jan. 12 in Ithaca. He was 96.

A professor emeritus of food science, Van Buren conducted research at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, now called Cornell AgriTech.

Van Buren was hired as an assistant professor of biochemistry in AgriTech’s Department of Food Science and Technology in 1957. His career coincided with the post-World War II consolidation of farming in New York, the rise of greater regulations on processed foods in the U.S. and the global Green Revolution. He conducted research on a host of canned and processed foods, including peach purees, green beans, soybeans and apple juice, working to ensure that foods were safe, nutritious and economical.

“I had so much respect for him both as a scientist and as a person,” said Chang Lee, professor emeritus of food science, who collaborated with Van Buren on a five-year, U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project on the effects of thermal processing on the nutritional quality of vegetables. “With his unassuming, quiet elegance, he personified the appellation ‘gentleman.’”

In 1971, a foodborne botulism outbreak that originated from a commercial canned soup company led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin requiring food processors to complete training in the microbiology and technology of canning, according to “The First 100 Years of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, NY.” To address that need, AgriTech developed its Better Process Control School courses, which have been taught continuously since 1974. Van Buren regularly contributed to the school, and otherwise supported commercial food processors, until his retirement in 1992.

Van Buren was also committed to improving nutrition and combating famine internationally. He was part of a team of six AgriTech faculty members collaborating on a major project in the 1960s studying soy milk and other high-protein foods for use in baby foods and formulas in developing countries. At the time, soybeans were not a major crop in New York, and Van Buren and his colleagues faced pushback for working on a project seemingly irrelevant to New York farmers, according to the history. However, the team’s insights became increasingly valuable at home, particularly in the 1980s, when soymilk gained popularity in the U.S.

Van Buren was also an early supporter of the civil rights movement and served as the first chairman of the Geneva Human Rights Commission, which was founded in 1964.

Van Buren was born Oct. 17, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York. During World War II, he served as an Army combat engineer, from 1944-47, then he attended college on the GI bill. He is survived by his wife, Mary ’49; children David Van Buren ’77, Michele Van Buren Kiefer and Christopher Van Holmes ’80; and six grandchildren.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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