Abel, Mary Hinman, 1850-1938
Mary Hinman Abel was born in Montour Falls, New York, the daughter of Dr. George Theodore, a physician, and Irene Benson Hinman. She received her B. A. from Elmira College, taught high school English for a while, and published a paper on the subject of students and home life in the American Social Science Association's journal in 1880. While teaching in La Porte, Indiana, she met her future husband, John Jacob Abel (1857 - 1938.) They married in July 1883 and moved to Germany (birthplace of John Abel's father) for five years, where John Abel pursued medical and chemistry studies and received his M.D. degree from the University of Strasbourg in 1888. Returning to America that same year, Abel and her husband settled in Michigan, where her husband began teaching pharmacology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Abel would become an internationally famous pharmacologist and physiological chemist, chairing those departments at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and training many of the leading pharmacologists of his day. The couple had two sons, and one daughter who died in infancy.
While Abel was living in Germany, she studied the latest European research on nutrition, and collected information about community kitchens - where basic prepared foods like soup and bread could be bought for pennies by local residents - and various consumer co-operatives. In 1888 she entered an essay contest sponsored by the American Public Health Association, a group of physicians, lawyers, teachers and others working for sanitary conditions and better hygiene. The subject was 'practical sanitary and economic cooking adapted to persons of moderate and small means,' and first prize, offered by Henry Lomb of Bausch & Lomb, was $500. Abel's submission, published in book form by the APHA (1890), was by far the best; the judges refused to award the second prize ($200) to any of the others. Presenting the research into nutrition and digestion done by Dr. Atwater, Dr. Beaumont, and others, and combining it with her knowledge of community kitchens, she suggested a detailed approach on how to feed families inexpensively, and why selected foods would satisfy their nutritional needs. As the Journal of Home Economics said, at the time of Abel's death in 1938, "The movement which was later to be called home economics was making some headway, and Mrs. Abel's little volume was like a lamp in the wilderness showing the way through the darkness . . . for years an increasingly large number of teachers depended on it as a guide and its significance in the development of interest in nutrition and the preparation of food cannot be overestimated."
Ellen Richards - the "mother of home economics" and a trained chemist who was the first women to be graduated from M.I.T. - was one of the judges of the essay contest. She interested Abel in a project she was pursuing in Boston, a large-scale community kitchen that would sell low-cost dishes prepared according to principles of nutrition and a comparative study of utensils and cooking methods. Abel moved to Boston, and the two women began the New England Kitchen, which put in practice the fundamental concept of evaluating foods by protein, carbohydrates, fat and calorie content, and serving it freshly cooked in large yet inexpensive quantities. They introduced a number of important innovations into the preparation of food for sizeable populations, including the Aladdin oven - a kind of prototype of a crock-pot that reduced handling and could cook slowly unmonitored. Though many of the New England Kitchen's customers disliked the bland puddings and stews offered, the project attracted the attention of reformers and philanthropists looking to feed the needy in an efficient, healthy manner, as well as schools, hospitals, and institutions interested in scientific cooking. The New England Kitchen was also the impetus for the 1899 Lake Placid Conference, where leading cooking teachers and domestic experts gathered to lay the groundwork for forming the American Home Economics Association in 1908 - the first professional group of its kind. Abel (with Richards) wrote two works on the Kitchen project: The Story of the New England Kitchen (1890), and The Story of the New England Kitchen. Part II, A Study in Social Economics (1893). Richards and Abel's studies of the Aladdin oven - an invention of Edward Atkinson, benefactor of the Kitchen - appear in Atkinson's work, The Science of Nutrition (1896).
When her husband joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University, Abel moved to Baltimore, where she was appointed to the Baltimore Board of Supervisors of City Charities, working to improve food standards at city institutions. From 1909 to 1915, she was editor of the Journal of Home Economics. During World War I, she served as home economics director of the Maryland Food Administration, and advised the Women's Division of the National Defense Council on the feasibility of offering the public the types of community kitchens and co-operatives she had studied in Europe. Between 1904 and 1913 she wrote several farmers' bulletins for the United States Department of Agriculture, including "Sugar is Food," "Beans, Peas, and Other Legumes as Food," and "Care of Food in the Home" - early examples of popularizing science for the general public. In 1922 she published Successful Family Life on the Moderate Income, a study that includes her philosophy of home life.
After several years of declining health, Abel died at her home on January 20, 1938. She was buried in her hometown of Montour Falls, New York. Her husband died just months later, on May 26, 1938.
- Abel, Mary Hinman, Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means. American Public Health Association, 1890.
- "Mary Hinman Abel," Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 30, No. 6., pp. 361 - 369. Washington D.C.: The American Home Economics Assoc., June 1938.
- The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. V. 28, pp. 23-24. New York: James T. White & Co., 1940.
- Shapiro, Laura, Perfection Salad, Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
- Who's Who Among North American Authors. Vol. V 1931 - 1932. Alberta Lawrence, Ed. New York: Golden Syndicate Publishing Company, 1931.
- Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means. New York: American Public Health Association, 1890. General Cookery
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman