Alfred E. “Alf” Harper has had a major impact on nutritional science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, across the country and around the world.
Harper, now an emeritus professor of biochemistry and nutritional sciences, will receive the 1999 Distinguished Service Award from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at its Honorary Recognition Banquet Nov. 5 at the Memorial Union.
Twenty years before the resurgence of interest in nutrition and health, Harper was responsible for creating and organizing the UW-Madison”s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “The program continues much as he envisioned it and remains one of the few internationally recognized programs in nutritional science in the United States,” says N.J. “Ben” Benevenga, an animal scientist and nutritionist in the College.
Harper was a persuasive advocate who insisted that information on nutrition be based on sound science, according to John Suttie, who recently chaired the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Alf became one of this nation”s most visible and influential nutritionists.”
Harper served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board, the 1969 White House Conference on Nutrition, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Committee on Protein and Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institutes of Health Committee on Dietary Allowances, and the USDA Human Nutrition Board of Scientific Counselors.
A native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Harper arrived on campus in 1949. He began research on amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, in the lab of biochemist Conrad Elvehjem. Harper received his doctorate in biochemistry from the UW-Madison in 1953. Except for four years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harper spent his entire career at the UW-Madison before retiring in 1990.
Harper”s research on amino acid metabolism expanded our understanding of amino acid requirements, and how deficiencies and imbalances affect growth and other functions. That research brought Harper recognition and awards, including the Borden Award from the American Institute of Nutrition in 1965 and the Atwater Award from USDA in 1990. In 1974, Harper was named the UW-Madison”s E.V. McCullum Professor of Nutritional Science.
However, Harper”s major contribution to the UW-Madison was his foresight and effort in creating a home for basic and clinical nutrition.
“Advanced degrees in nutrition were not common in United States in the 1960s,” Suttie says. “Alf was instrumental in convincing College and UW-Madison administrators that nutrition deserved a home of its own.”
Harper served as the new department”s first chairman from 1968 to 1982. He brought together a diverse group of scientists to focus on nutritional research and education, according to Benevenga. Harper created several innovative courses for students and promoted interdepartmental, interdisciplinary approaches to broad problems. He also helped develop the Clinical Nutrition Research Center, which addresses nutritional problems related to medicine. During his career, Harper guided 30 student to master”s degrees and another 44 to doctorates in biochemistry or nutrition.
Harper and his wife Naila now live in Seattle, Wash.