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Molly S. Laas

Entered the program in 2010

C.V.:Molly S. Laas's C.V.
Molly S. Laas


History of Nutrition, History of Medicine, History of Biology, and American Cultural History.

My doctoral research has focused on the relationship between science, health, and diet. In my dissertation, I track the intellectual history of nutrition science in the nineteenth century, showing how the American diet became a social question. Like the woman question or the labor question, the “food question” was an attempt to define a problem that its proponents thought was vital to solve in order to ensure the well-being of society as a whole. As the century progressed, chemists, physicians, home economists, and social reformers began to view the dietary habits of Americans as in need of urgent redress to ensure the country's health. Their work begin with the diets of particular groups, such as workers or people in prisons, armies, and asylums, which later extended to the diets of all classes. Nutritional chemistry served as the central intellectual resource for the framing of the food question, as it provided a means for quantifying the nutrients in food and making people’s dietary habits legible to experts. But the food question was not just a scientific one, and so political thought, religious belief, political economy, and nationalism all influenced efforts to determine the best diet for Americans. I draw on previously untapped archival sources and the print culture of nineteenth-century America to narrate the emergence of the food question and show how it laid the groundwork for contemporary debates about dietary advice and medical authority. My work shows how these early efforts to define and solve the food question were at heart attempts to answer a deeper quandary: what constitutes a body well-managed, and a life well-lived? By considering the ways in which my actors attempted to manage the relationship between individual Americans’ health and the health of society, I show how nutrition science provided a vision of a regularized body with standard nutritional needs, gradually supplanting older models of health based on a person’s distinctive lifestyles and bodily makeup.


M.A., History of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2012

B.A., Comparative Literature, Smith College, 2004


Working title: Nutrition as a Social Question, 1830s-1890s. Advisor: Susan E. Lederer

MA Paper:

Title: Making Rickets Visible: Race, Migration, and the Discovery of Rickets in 19th-Century America. Advisor: Susan E. Lederer. (completed 2012)

Prelim Fields:

Medical Science and Public Health in the United States (advisor: Susan E. Lederer)

History of Biology (advisor: Lynn K. Nyhart)

Science and Medicine in the Enlightenment (advisor: Thomas H. Broman)

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