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Nelson, Precious Mabel

Published onOct 11, 2021
Nelson, Precious Mabel

(November 9, 1887 - February 19, 1963)

Quick Facts

Former Head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition, P. Mabel Nelson focused on the advancement of home economics with a major interest in food and nutrition.


Precious Mabel Nelson was born November 9, 1887, in Brookston, Indiana, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Nelson. She graduated from Riverside High School in Riverside, California, in 1906. For the next few years she taught in a country school. In 1909, she entered the University of California at Berkeley to prepare to teach English. While there she learned of a “new” field called home economics. In 1912, she transferred from Berkeley to the State Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics at Santa Barbara. She graduated from there the following year and received a diploma enabling her to teach sewing and cooking. Nelson returned to Berkeley and finished her Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition (1916). During the fall of 1919, she entered Yale University and graduated from there with her degree as a doctor of philosophy (1923).

Dr. P. Mabel Nelson started her work at Iowa State at the relatively young age of 36 on September 1, 1923 as an associate professor of dietetics and experimental cookery. She wholeheartedly gave 34 years of her life to students, the development of Iowa State College (now University), and the advancement of home economics with a major interest in food and nutrition.

She first taught courses in nutrition and dietetics, experimental cook­ing and had charge of research and a seminar in "household science." Having just earned the PhD degree in physiological chemistry at Yale University, she had much to give these new areas of study. Since Dean Anna Richardson had wished to study nutrition at Yale, she naturally turned to that school in her search for a teacher and researcher in nutrition.

From 1926 to 1944, Dr. Nelson was head of the Department of Foods and Nutrition. As a member of Dean Genevieve Fisher's cabinet later in her tenure, she participated in making policies and decisions that guided the division for 17 years before she herself became dean, a position she held from September 1, 1944 to August 31, 1952. Dr. Nelson filled the deanship with vision and distinction. Under her leadership the total research program expanded.

When the time came to relinquish this office, Dean Nelson taught and counseled freshman women and collected and organized data on the history of home eco­nomics at Iowa State. Without her unusual interest in collecting and organizing facts, the story of home economics at Iowa State University would not have been possible. Her notes on the history of Iowa State included a detailed genealogy of Iowa State’s first president, Adonijah Welch and his wife, Mary B. Welch who first developed the curricula that became field of home economics.

Miss Nelson served the entire college as well as the division and her department. Of special interest was her work with the graduate committee of the college and with the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station; from this work she laid the foundations for the outstanding development of research and graduate work.

Dr. Nelson reached the women of the state through her activities in extension and with the Federation of Women's Clubs. Many knew her from her friendly chats with “Martha Duncan” (Eleanor Wilkins) over the Home-Maker's Half-Hour show on WOI radio. It was Nelson who recognized the talents of Eleanor Wilkins and in 1939 launched "Martha Dun­can" on her years-long program of education and good cheer for Iowa homemakers.

During the emergency of World War II, Dr. Nelson was chairman of the Iowa State Nutrition Council which mobilized the efforts of people for food production, conservation, and better health through good nutri­tion. Additionally, Dr. Nelson with Fern Gleiser gave counsel on menus to those in charge of food service for the state penal institutions. Miss Nelson also served on committees of the American Dietetic and the American Home Economics Association.

Dr. Nelson pioneered in the development of cooperative research among home economists of land grant colleges and state universities. Dr. Nelson published numerous papers, ranging from circulars for the home economics extension program to research bulletins and scientific papers.

Of her deanship at Iowa State, Dr. Nelson had this to say in January 1952:

“The seven years in charge of the program of the Division of Home Economics have been seven rewarding years. During that time there has been the clarification of the functioning of the Division in its re­search, resident teaching and extension efforts in the State of Iowa; a re-evaluation and change in the curricula; the research program has been strengthened by the addition of a Coordinator of Home Economics Research; and the remodeling and reconditioning of the Household Equipment laboratories, the Home Economics Tea Room, the Foods and Nutrition laboratories and the construction of the four new Home Management houses. It is with pleasure that I look forward to turning over the reins to a very able young woman who is outstanding in the field of Home Economics.”

Her successor, Dean Helen LeBaron, reflected on the contribu­tions of her predecessor:

“In becoming Dean of the College of Home Economics, Dr. Nelson assumed direction of the largest Home Economics School in the United States (enrollment ~1,700; staff ~100). Highly trained as she was in the field of Food and Nutrition, she recognized the importance of working closely with the heads of the other seven de­partments in the College and with the administrators of home economics extension and research. She gave consistent support to the programs in each department and encouraged the interdisciplinary approach to problems of the family. The coordina­tion of teaching, research, and extension was essential to developing a strong home economics program that would reach into homes through­out all Iowa.

“Planning and carry­ing through the program for the 75th anniversary (in 1946) of the founding of Home Economics at this institution consumed her time and energy. In this connection, she recorded the history of the College—a document that will prove invaluable in days to come.”

The expanding program and increased enrollment at the College made apparent the need for more adequate facilities for teach­ing and research. Dr. Nelson convinced university administration and before her retirement legislative approval for the construction of a new wing was given.

Although Dean Nelson's term of office was relatively short, it was significant in the permanent strengthening of the Home Economics program. During her tenure the resident staff increased from 83 to 108, with ~20 holding doctoral degrees. The 1953 Faculty Citation was a testimonial to her contributions to the education of women in the state.

She left Ames in 1957 for retirement in California. In retirement, she maintained a voluminous and lively correspond­ence with her former students which allowed her to help the placement office in its never-ending effort to update its alumni files. She died February 19, 1963 at age 75.

Excerpted from A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University by Ercel Sherman Eppright and Elizabeth Strom Ferguson; edited by Katherine Svec.

Selected Source

P. Mabel (Precious Mabel) Nelson Papers, RS 12/1/14, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

“Twentieth Century Women at Iowa State” online exhibition,

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