Mayer, Jean

James Shrigley
James Shrigley

Jean Mayer (February 19, 1920-January 1, 1993), a renowned French-American scientist, physiologist, nutritionist, educator, was the tenth president of Tufts University. Under his visionary leadership this small, financially-strapped regional New England institution evolved into a major global educational center.

Jean was born in Paris. His father, André Mayer, a humanist and distinguished physiologist, and his mother, Jeanne Eugénie (Veille) Mayer, shared interest in nutrition. Warm, loving parents, they encouraged their son to ski, play tennis, hike in the Alps, and develop an interest in science. Although Jeanne was Jewish, Jean and his sister grew up without religious training or orientation.

At the University of Paris Jean earned a B. Litt., summa cum laude, in philosophy, 1937; a B. Sc., magna cum laude, in mathematics, 1938; and a M. Sc. in biology, 1939. He was selected a Fellow of the École Normale Supérieur for 1939-40.

During the summer of 1939 Mayer visited the United States and decided that he wanted to live there. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was called up to serve in the army as a second lieutenant in the field artillery. Captured at Dunkirk, he escaped and worked for the French Resistance. He then rejoined his family who had fled to America. He remained in the United States almost a year, working at the Harvard Medical School, and under FBI observation, because they suspected him of being a counter-agent.

At Harvard Mayer met and fell in love with Elizabeth Van Huysen. Born in Somerville, Massachusetts, she grew up in nearby Weston, attended its First Parish (Unitarian) Church, and studied at Vassar and Radcliffe. In 1942, after his ship to England was torpedoed and had to return to Nova Scotia, they were married there by an Anglican minister. The next day he sailed again for England and did not see her again until the war ended. They eventually had four sons and one daughter.

Mayer had joined the French Free Forces in 1941. As a captain on DeGaulle’s staff he served in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Italy, southern France, and Germany. He earned fourteen decorations including the Resistance Medal, the Knight of the Legion of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre with two palms.

After the war, with a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, Mayer enrolled at Yale University and in 1948 earned a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry. He worked in Washington, D.C as a nutrition officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations while studying evenings in the Department of Pharmacology at the George Washington University Medical School. The work he did there became the basis for his next doctorate. In 1949 he accepted a teaching appointment at the Harvard School of Public Health. Harvard allowed him to first spend a year at the Sorbonne where he earned a D. Sc., summa cum laude, in physiology, 1950.

Mayer stayed at Harvard for 27 years, eventually becoming Professor of Nutrition. He was also a lecturer in the History of Science, 1961-76; on the Arts and Sciences faculty; a member of Harvard’s Center for Population Studies, 1968-72, 75-77 (its co-director, 1975-76); and Master of Dudley House, 1973-76. He became an American citizen in 1956.

For more than twenty years Mayer investigated food intake and obesity in humans and animals and studied how these related to health. He is credited with discovering that hunger is controlled by the use of glucose in the brain. Together with his students, he wrote ten books and 750 professional papers. He justified his interest in nutrition this way: “You can’t expect work and achievement out of people unless you feed them properly. It’s as simple as that.”

In 1969 Mayer was appointed a Special Consultant to the President Richard Nixon and was asked to organize the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. The recommendations of this conference continue to guide American domestic nutritional policy. Mayer also served on the President’s Consumer Advisory Council, 1970-77, and was an advisor to various Congressional special committees. He provided the same service for both the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization. He took part in several relief missions to India, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere in West Africa. In addition, he helped numerous non-governmental organizations deal with hunger and nutrition.

While Mayer taught at Harvard, his family lived in Sudbury, Massachusetts until 1967. They attended the First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) Church whose minister, Carl Scovel became Jean’s friend and “spiritual leader.” The children went to the church school where Betty Mayer was a teacher. Jean served on various committees and was Moderator of the parish’s Standing Committee, 1959-66. In 1967 they moved to Beacon Hill in Boston. That year Scovel became minister of King’s Chapel in Boston, which had become the Mayers’ new church. Jean served on a number of committees, including the covenant committee, and was a Vestryman, 1970-74, and Senior Warden, 1974-83.

Mayer considered himself a Unitarian rather than a Unitarian Universalist and thought of King’s Chapel as a Unitarian church. The theology of the combined denomination puzzled him and he was distressed that tradition was ignored. His religion, as Scovel has said, was “an almost touchingly simple faith in the teachings and example of Jesus, combined with a strong skepticism about the church’s claims for Jesus.”

In 1976 the trustees of Tufts University invited Mayer to become their 10th president. He had long wanted to be president of a small college and accepted immediately. His “academic entrepreneurial” leadership style, along with his vision of what Tufts could become, transformed the institution from a sleepy New England educational center into one of America’s leading universities, with an international reputation. As president he considered himself a “huckster”—but a huckster of ideas and ideals. “Ah, I love it,” he told a friend. “It’s what I do best.”

When Mayer arrived the Tufts endowment was $30 million; when he left it was $200 million. In addition he raised another $145 million for capital construction and additional millions from the Federal government for programs the university sponsored. In total over $400 million was raised in special drives during his presidency. Besides strengthening Tufts financially, he reshaped its student base. In 1976 only 38% of Tufts incoming students came from the top 10% of American high schools; in 1992, when he left, the figure was 74%. Further, the faculty, which had been recognized for its emphasis on teaching undergraduates, also became known for research and publication. This transformation of the Arts and Sciences faculty led to many prominent professors coming to teach at the university.

In his first decade as president, Mayer founded six innovative educational endeavors: the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, in Grafton, Massachusetts, New England’s first regional veterinary school (1979); a Center for European Studies in a 10th-century Priory in Talloires in the French Alps (1979); the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences (1980); a graduate School of Nutrition, the first in America (1981); the United States Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center of Aging (1982); and the Center for Environmental Management (1986). Through these new educational and research ventures, which attracted the attention, imagination, and approval of the students, faculty, and the general public, Mayer’s vision for Tufts was realized.

When other colleges were dismantling their chaplaincies Mayer re-instituted chaplaincy at Tufts. He always regretted that in 1968 Tufts had closed its theological school. He would have liked to have made it an effective part of the institution, for he was proud of the university’s Universalist heritage. When the Harvard Divinity School Library celebrated the publication of the final volume of the The Larger Hope, the history of the Universalist Church in America by the Tufts Archivist and history professor Russell Miller, Mayer attended the event and praised the two-volume study.

During his career Mayer received numerous awards and honors, including the Atwater Medal of the Umited States Department of Agriculture, the Gold Medal of both the Boston Museum of Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences, and was elected a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences. He was given 22 honorary degrees by colleges and universities in Europe, Japan, South Africa, and the United States. One of these was from The Starr King School for the Ministry (1977). He was editor of several scientific journals and delivered many memorial lectures. At the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1978, he spoke on world hunger and urged that all religious people “ban the use of starvation as [a] political tool.”


In 1992 Mayer stepped down as the Tufts president, more because his trustees felt the university needed a developmental pause than from his own desire to retire. He was made the university’s first Chancellor. Before he could begin his new role and define its power, he died of a heart attack. A memorial service was held at King’s Chapel and, a month later, a service celebrating his life was held at Cohen Auditorium at Tufts University. At that service Arlene Ratner, his assistant for many years, observed that while “some people come into our lives and quickly go, some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.”


Mayer’s collected papers and his administrative records, 1948-92, are at the Tisch Library, Tufts University, which has on-line a bibliography of his writings, 1948-1993. For accurate detailed biographical information see his essay “Life as a Physiologist and Nutritionist,” in Discovery Processes (1977). See also Who Was Who in America (1993-96); Stanley N. Gershoff, “Jean Mayer 1920-1993,” Journal of Nutrition (2001); “Words Spoken In Memory of Jean Mayer at his Memorial Service on January 4, 1992 at King’s Chapel in Boston by his Friend and Minister, Carl Scovel”; and his entry by Anne Sauer in the on-line Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History. For accounts of his presidency see Russell E. Miller, Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts University Since 1952 (1986) and Sol Gittleman, An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts 1976-2002 (2004). Obituaries are in The World (March/April 1993) and the New York Times and the Boston Globe (January 2, 1993). The Globe (January 5, 1993) has an editorial and a further article. For the life of Elizabeth Van Huysen Mayer, for whom in 1985 the newly constructed campus center at Tufts was named, see Tufts Magazine (Summer 2006) and her obituary in the Boston Globe (April 4, 2006).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted June 7, 2007