1873 – 1947
Frances Stern’s experience as a second-generation American Jew dedicated to social reform, interested in education, and having the good fortune to come into contact with several prominent women engaged in various aspects of social work led her to a career in scientific nutrition, applied dietetics, and home economics.
Frances Stern was the fourth daughter and the last of seven children born to Louis and Caroline (Oppenheimer) Stern, who had immigrated to the United States from Rheinfels, German. Frances Stern was born in Boston on July 3, 1873. Upon completion of a grammar school education, Stern volunteered to teach in the Sunday school for girls founded by Lina Frank Hecht that attempted to bridge the divide between older Jewish immigrants from Central Europe and new arrivals from Eastern Europe. In 1890, as an expansion of the work of the Sunday school, Hecht encouraged and financed the establishment of the Hebrew Industrial School for Girls. Stern quickly became involved in the new enterprise, and, in 1895, with her friend Isabel Hyams, opened the Louisa May Alcott Club in Boston’s South End to teach homemaking to the poor young women of the neighborhood. In 1895, as a result of her emerging career as a social worker, Stern enrolled in graduate courses in kindergarten training, which ignited her interest in teaching nutrition to children. From her experience teaching nutrition grew the belief that, “if children were properly trained in home-making, they could help to lead the world to the ‘art of right living.’”
As a teacher of dietetics, Stern encountered the scientific analyses of several foods carried out at Pratt Institute under the direction of Ellen H. Richards, a pioneer in the chemical analysis of food, an advocate of the social benefits of applied science, and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Due to their shared interests, Stern went to work in Richards’s lab, became her assistant, and accompanied her to the home economics conferences held in Lake Placid, New York. The conferences eventually led to the establishment of the American Home Economics Association in 1908, and Richards became its first president.
While associated with Richards, Stern became a special student at MIT, enrolling in courses on the chemistry and sanitation of foods to meet her interests in nutrition. Her training and commitments led her to develop visiting housekeeping programs for the Boston Association for the Relief and Control of Tuberculosis and the Boston Provident Association. This work placed Stern in contact with underfed patients on low incomes, which motivated her to investigate the diet of the factory worker. Her research culminated in her book Food for the Worker, published in 1917, and led to her appointment as Industrial Health Inspector for the Massachusetts Board of Labor and Industries. During World War I, Stern served with the Food Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration as an investigator of food adequacy for industrial workers for the Department of Agriculture, and with the American Red Cross in France. In 1918, in association with Dr. Michael Davis, Director of the Boston Dispensary, who shared her belief that diet and adequate nutrition were essential elements of social welfare, Frances Stern founded the Food Clinic as a component of the Dispensary.
The Food Clinic, as one manifestation of the emerging home economics movement, served not only as a center for dispensing practical advice on food and meal preparation for outpatients and their families, but also as a center for research on the relationships among health, nutrition, class, and ethnicity. Typical of many enterprises associated with the reforms of the Progressive Era (1900–1920), the Food Clinic effectively combined scientific methods with a moral commitment to social betterment. The emphasis on food and nutrition as essential elements of health provided women opportunities to participate in the progressive movement, which combined their traditional tasks as homemakers with new public roles as scientific experts.
Significantly, under Stern’s direction, the Food Clinic operated with a broad understanding of the environmental influences that determined patterns of food consumption, including mental and emotional factors, income, religion, and ethnicity. The fruits of Stern’s teaching, research, and practical experience were brought together in her last publication, Applied Dietetics, first published in 1936, with a second edition in 1943. The preface to the second edition, in which she reflected on the impact the new knowledge of vitamins had on the understanding of the chemical value of foods, illustrated Stern’s commitment to remain at the forefront of her field.
The Food Clinic was quickly recognized for its contributions to patient care and earned an international reputation. The Rockefeller Foundation selected the Food Clinic as a training center for the hospital dieticians it brought over from Europe and Asia. Stern was rewarded with an honorary degree from the Tufts College Medical School and appointed a special instructor in dietetics and social work at Simmons College in Boston.
While establishing a career that would bring her worldwide fame as a nutritionist, Frances Stern was also active in the Boston Jewish community as a social worker and role model for a younger generation of Jewish activists. In 1914, she was appointed to the Welfare Committee of the Boston Federated Jewish Charities, charged with studying the agency’s needs and making suggestions for reform. The committee’s report recommended that the Boston Federated adopt the concepts of scientific philanthropy, the professionalization of charity, and organizational bureaucracy—all important components of Stern’s career as a social worker. These suggestions were adopted and catapulted the Boston Federated into the forefront of Jewish communal service.
Frances Stern died in Boston on December, 24, 1947, at age seventy-four.
Applied Dietetics (1936. 2d ed. 1943); “Dietetics and the Food Clinic Development.” In The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus (1981): 721–727; Food for the Worker (1917).
AJYB 50:523–524; Ebert, Susan. “Community and Philanthropy.” In The Jews of Boston, edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and Ellen Smith (1995): 211–237; Obituary. NYTimes, December 25, 1947, 21:6; NAW; Solomon, Barbara Miller. Pioneers in Service: A History of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (1956); Weigley, Emma Seifrit. “It Might Have Been Euthenics: The Lake Placid Conferences and the Home Economic Movement.” American Quarterly 26 (1974): 79–96.