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Mortensen, Martin

Published onJul 30, 2021
Mortensen, Martin

(May 29, 1872 — March 13, 1953)

Quick Facts

Teacher, Iowa State College student, creamery worker and manager, professor of dairying and dairy industry, head of the Department of Dairy Industry at Iowa State, professor emeritus. 

Martin Mortensen, head, Department of Dairy Industry, 1909-1938, 1933 by Robert Wadsworth Grafton. Oil on linen. Commissioned by Iowa State College. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U82.125

Martin Mortensen was born on May 29, 1872 at Sindal, Denmark, a son of Peder C. Mortensen.  His mother's name is unknown.  He grew up in Denmark, attended a private school there, took a three year course at the Danish Royal Teachers Seminary at Ranum, Denmark from 1889-1892, and then taught in a rural public school for one year before coming to the United States in 1893. 

Mortensen, 1911 The Bomb

Upon arrival in America, Mortensen came to Iowa Center, Iowa and was employed as a butter and ice cream maker at a creamery there.  He worked in that position until January 1897 during which he made the highest scores then known in butter making contests.  He then entered Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) and originally intended to major in engineering.  After consulting with faculty members, he decided to major in agriculture instead.  In 1899, shortly before he was to graduate, he was offered a job as a supervisor of butter making with the Hanford-Hazelwood Cream Company in Sioux City, Iowa.  He worked for this company in Sioux City until 1904 when the Hazelwood Company sold its share of the business, whereupon Mortensen accepted a position with that company in Portland, Oregon as general manager.  He managed the company until the fall of 1908 when he was invited to return to Iowa State to fill an instructor vacancy and finish his degree.  He received the degree of Bachelor Science in Agriculture at the end of the year and was immediately hired to head the Department of Dairy Industry effective January 1, 1909. 

M. Mortensen sculpture bust by Christian Petersen.

Mortensen remained as head of the Department of Dairy Industry for nearly thirty years, until September 1, 1938.   He served simultaneously as chief of the dairy industry section of the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station.  During his tenure, he focused his efforts on the improvement of butter and ice cream making, dairy plant construction and management problems, reduction of losses in dairy plants, and on more economical methods of operation.  Dr. Mortensen also traveled in other countries to study dairy operations.  As early as 1900, before finishing his degree at Iowa State, he traveled to Great Britain as a representative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study dairy marketing.  He made return trips to Europe in 1914 and 1926 to study general dairy operations and development.  He also pioneered the making of cheese.  On a trip back to his home country of Denmark in 1931 as a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative to the World Diary Congress in Copenhagen, he discovered Danish manufacture of cheese that he realized could also be manufactured for profit in Iowa.  He arranged for Danish experts to come to Iowa State where they gave instruction in cheese making.  The result was the increased manufacture of blue cheese, Swiss cheese, and Edam cheese in Iowa. 

Dr. Mortensen's publications include Management of Dairy Plants ( New York, MacMillan, 1921), an article in A Century of Farming in Iowa 1846-1946 (Iowa State College Press, 1946), an article in the Journal of Dairy Science (Volume 23, Number 11, November, 1940), and several experimental station bulletins on various aspects of dairying.

In 1909, the department consisted of only three staff members, an assistant professor, a butter maker, and one extension worker.  In 1938, the department had grown to include thirteen instructors and professors, five extension employees, and ten researchers at the experimental station.  Dr. Mortensen's first graduating class included only five people, but by 1938, there were twenty nine graduates for the year plus one PhD  graduate and twenty two students who finished a two-year course in creamery operations. 

Dr. Mortensen was also active in professional activities on and off campus.  He was a member of the American Dairy Science Association and served as two years as secretary treasurer, two years as vice president, and one year as president. He served two years as president of the National Butter Makers Association.  He was a member of the Ames Rotary Club and served as vice president for one year. 

Dr. Mortensen received many honors over the years.  He was a member of Sigma Xi, national honorary science research society, Phi Lambda Upsilon, national honorary chemistry society, Phi Kappa Phi, national scholastic honorary agriculture society, and Alpha Zeta, agricultural recognition society.  He received an honorary LLD degree from Kansas State College in 1934, was awarded the honor scroll by the American Dairy Science Association, and was the recipient of the Chicago Alumni Award from Iowa State in 1942.  He also received two awards from his homeland of Denmark. In 1927, he was knighted by King Christian X with the title Knight of Danneborg.  In 1951, years after his retirement, he received the Commander's Cross of the Order of the Danneborg and was made the first and only honorary member of Foreningen Danisk Flodeis, the national Danish ice cream association.   He was granted an audience with King Frederick IX.  In addition, he was elected a corresponding member of Danmarks Mejeritekniske Selskab, the Danish organization of dairy scientists. 

After his retirement as department head in 1938, Dr. Mortensen continued as Professor of Dairy Industry and remained active in teaching. He had married Emelia Christiansen in Royal, Iowa on November 14, 1900.  They had two daughters, Marie and Edna.  Marie graduated from Iowa State in 1923 and also attained an MS degree in 1925.  Edna graduated from Iowa State in 1930.  The family lived in the Mortensen House on campus from 1908 to 1926 when it was razed in order to build the Dairy Industry Building which was completed in 1928. 

Dr. Martin Mortensen died on March 13, 1953 at the home of his daughter, Edna, in Houston, Texas.  He was interred in College Cemetery, now Iowa State University Cemetery.  The Mortensen Memorial Scholarship which was established in 1955, Mortensen Drive in Ames, and Mortensen House in Helser Hall are all named in his honor.


Selected Sources

The largest source of information on Dr. Martin Mortensen is found in the Martin Mortensen Papers, RS 9/13/13, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University.  Although the collection consists of only one folder, it is nevertheless rich in biographical and professional information on Mortensen.  The collection includes personal and professional history from his personnel files, news releases from the Iowa State College Information Service, and a number of newspaper articles and clippings.

A source of information on Mortensen House and the Dairy Industry Building is found in H. Summerfield Day, The Iowa State University Campus and Its Buildings 1859-1979. Ames, IA. Iowa State University, 1980, pp. 217-219, 358-359.

Obituaries and interment information are found in the Iowa State Daily, March 14, 1953, p. 1; The Alumnus of Iowa State College, Volume 48, Number 5, May, 1953, pp. 29-30; and on  


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