Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 2 Winter 2001

Culinary Heroines & Heroes

By Jo Anne Barton and Alice Johnson
(adapted by Caryl Gray)

Janet Lowe Cameron

Janet Lowe Cameron served with distinction as a Foods and Nutrition Specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service from 1931 until her retirement in 1964. She was known throughout Virginia and the nation for outstanding programs in foods and nutrition. She taught rural women and 4-H club members about the kinds of foods needed by family members, encouraged them to plan to grow or to buy foods to meet those needs, and demonstrated healthy, tasty ways of preparing the foods. She also taught these groups food preservation techniques. Miss Cameron was also known for her work with professional organizations and agencies in Virginia. She was presented with the John G. Kolbe Memorial Award by the Virginia Dietetic Association in recognition of her outstanding service and achievements in the field of dietetics in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Janet Lowe Cameron was born March 5, 1902, in Atlanta, GA, one of eight children of Janet Lowe and John S. Cameron. Miss Cameron attended Georgia State College for Woman, and then transferred to Columbia University Teacher's College, New York, NY, where she received a BS degree in Household Arts Education in 1926. She began her professional career in 1924 as a home demonstration agent for the New York State Cooperative Extension Service in Batavia and Belmont, NY, where she worked for six years. After completing the Master's Degree at Columbia in 1931, she accepted a position as Food and Nutrition Specialist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, a position she held with distinction until her retirement in 1964. She succeeded Mary B. McGowan who in 1927 became the first staff member with the title of food specialist. Initially, Miss Cameron spent half of each year as a teacher in the Department of Home Economics at Virginia Tech where she taught classes in Nutrition, Food Preparation, and Food Demonstration Methods for young women who were preparing to be Home Demonstration Agents. In the other half year, she traveled around the state conducting educational programs for rural women and 4-Hers. Janet Cameron died December 8, 1986, in Jupiter, FL.

Janet Cameron was widely known and respected throughout Virginia for the excellent programs she conducted in foods and nutrition on behalf of rural families. These programs were based on problems of rural families and her publications are a mirror of what was happening at the time. For example, when she began her tenure in 1931, the nation had just come through World War I, the Stock Market crash, bank closures, the great Depression, and the severe drought of 1930. Many families were having problems meeting the food needs of family members. The emphases in early extension programming were getting enough foods and eating a variety of foods. Families produced much of the food they consumed including vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, poultry, beef, and pork. Some families took homegrown wheat and corn to local mills to be ground into flour and meal. Miss Cameron worked with extension specialists in horticulture, poultry, and dairy areas to develop programs that would ensure that the "farm fed the family."

Miss Cameron organized canning demonstrations using the expertise of home economists from the Ball and Kerr Companies, makers of jars and lids used in home canning, and from Southern States, a cooperative serving rural families. She organized a bread-making clinic in 1940 for Home Demonstration Agents utilizing the expertise of the Wheat Flour Institute. These agents then taught Home Demonstration Club members and 4-H club members how to make yeast breads.

Rural women and their daughters were the primary audiences for foods and nutrition programming. Most of these women were not employed outside the home, but they were busy with household and farm responsibilities. The first Extension programs in foods and nutrition were the "Girls Tomato Clubs" started in 1910. These early 4-Hers learned to grow and can tomatoes (in tin cans sealed with a soldering iron!), how to judge the canned products, and how to exhibit them to best advantage. By the 1930's the emphasis had broadened considerably as evidenced by the publication containing recipes for use in the 4-H Foods and Nutrition work.

The home economists (Home Demonstration Agents) employed by the Extension Service conducted one-on-one programming and small group meetings on topics of general interest. They relied on the specialists at Virginia Tech to keep them updated about current topics and for printed materials to supplement oral presentations/demonstrations. Beginning in the twenties, Home Demonstration Clubs were organized in neighborhoods where six or more women wanted to get together monthly for demonstrations that would help them improve their standard of living. Not only did the clubs provide an opportunity to gain current information about homemaking but they also provided opportunities for leadership development. A countywide Advisory Board selected program topics for the year. These program topics were sent to the appropriate specialist who prepared support materials. Miss Cameron prepared many of the programs and other materials used by the Home Demonstration agents and club leaders. Miss Cameron spent a lot of time on the road teaching leaders who in turn taught other club members. Specialists spent a lot of time on the road traveling by bus, train, or car. Often they stayed with the Home Demonstration Agent or in a rooming house (an early bed and breakfast) as some rural areas lacked motels or hotels. Miss Cameron had a suitcase full of cooking equipment that she carried with her for use in these demonstrations. (See Special Features for a description of this suitcase and its contents.) The Home Demonstration Agent was responsible for getting the food supplies for the program. There were no slide sets, movies, or videotapes for these training sessions! To make more efficient use of resources, the specialist usually trained leaders in a county for two program topics and visited four or five counties each trip.

In 1941, the Executive Board of the Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs decided to explore the possibility of publishing a Federation cookbook. Miss Cameron was named the advisor to the committee that was chaired by Mrs. Alton Nicholson of Norfolk County. The committee reviewed and arranged for testing of the 1200 recipes submitted by Federation members and chose 775 for the cookbook Recipes from Old Virginia. War activities delayed the printing of the cookbook, which was finally printed in October of 1945. The cookbook was printed at the Dietz Press in Richmond and it went on sale December 15, 1946. In authorizing the cookbook, the Board listed three objectives: (1) to bring the women of the Federation together by giving them the opportunity of helping on the project; (2) to preserve the old recipes of their grandmother's day; (3) and to provide added revenue for Federation activities. The cookbook has been reprinted at least 11 times. According to History of Virginia Extension Homemakers Council 1923-1979, almost 150,000 of the cookbooks were sold between 1946 and 1978 resulting in royalties of almost $29,000. This money was used to fund specific projects including partially furnishing the living room of the Woolwine House, a residence for graduate students who were studying home economics at Virginia Tech from 1960-1966, and maintaining the Maude E. Wallace Scholarship given annually to a home economics student at Virginia Tech. The cookbook is still in print. Miss Cameron also served as advisor to the Cookbook Committee of The Virginia Tech Faculty Women's Club. The proceeds from sales of the cookbook entitled Centennial Cookbook have been used to provide scholarships to outstanding women students at Virginia Tech.

Nutrition was a relatively new science in the 1930--the word vitamin was not coined until 1912 (the (e) was dropped in 1920)! Miss Cameron was fortunate to have studied at Columbia University with Dr. Mary Swartz Rose, a legendary nutritionist s and one of the first professors of nutrition. Public interest in nutrition increased in the thirties and forties. In 1940, the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council appointed a Committee on Food and Nutrition to develop a table of "Recommended Daily Allowances for Specific Nutrients." The first allowances were announced in May of 1941 and Miss Cameron made them available to Virginians in Publication #25,137, "Nutrition News: A Definite Yardstick for Good Nutrition." The nine nutrients included in the first RDA list were protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, and vitamin D.

Enrichment of grain products with niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and iron was initiated in 1941 in response to research findings that the average American diet of the time was often inadequate in these nutrients. Enrichment was made possible by the chemists' ability to prepare pure nutrients in inexpensive forms. Miss Cameron worked to get a legislation passed in Virginia requiring enrichment of grain products. Her efforts were unsuccessful.

World War II brought additional challenges for Cameron. Victory Gardens were promoted to provide food for the family. Consumers needed to know what fruits and vegetables to grow, how to use them, and how to preserve for later use. Sugar was rationed and tin for cans was in short supply so Miss Cameron had to find alternative ways of preserving foods. Drying was one method of preservation that did not require these resources, so Miss Cameron asked specialists in the Department of Agricultural Engineering to design a food dehydrator that could be built at home. A prototype was built and Miss Cameron traveled around the state to demonstrate its use. She often took the dryer into her hotel room at night to continue the drying process begun during these demonstrations. Miss Cameron also worked with the agricultural engineers to develop a tester for pressure canner gauges.

During WW II Virginia formed a statewide nutrition committee. In 1956, the nutrition committee came under the auspices of the Virginia Council on Health and Medical Care. Since the Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs had an interest in improving rural health conditions, it was active in establishing the Virginia Council on Health and Medical Care. Miss Cameron chaired the statewide nutrition committee for four years. A major activity of the committee was to sponsor an annual forum held in Richmond. Experts in the field of nutrition were invited to make presentations at this forum. County nutrition committees were formed, patterned after the state nutrition committee. The county committees coordinated the programs of health departments, welfare departments, schools, the National Youth Association, the Farm Security Administration, and the Extension Service.

Janet Cameron served as a good role model for cooperation as she worked with many agencies and organizations. She worked closely with Mabel Todd Towell, Nutritionist at the Virginia State Health Department, to develop programs and publications. Together they developed a weight control program TOPS (Take Off Pounds Safely). Cameron worked with home economists with Southern States, Farm Bureau, power companies, gas companies, Dairy Council, School lunch, etc. She also cooperated with commodity groups. For example, the Virginia Horticultural Society helped fund the publication Apples Around the Clock and its auxiliary provided funding for scholarships for 4-Hers giving demonstrations using apples at 4-H Club Congress. Other commodity groups with which she worked were those promoting pork, beef, eggs, dairy, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and bakery products.

Before the days of government school lunch programs (the School Lunch Act was passed in 1946), many Home Demonstration Clubs established community projects to serve hot lunches in the rural schools. Agents and club leaders conducted nutrition surveys in several counties. These surveys showed that a large percentage of the children did not get an adequate diet. Many clubs organized to produce a soup mixture during the summer months when garden produce was abundant and to preserve the mixture for school lunches. Janet Cameron taught the canning process used to preserve the soup.

Mary L. Thompson joined Janet Cameron as a Foods and Nutrition Specialist in 1943. From 1943-1963, Miss Cameron and Mrs. Thompson worked as a close-knit team. They co-authored many publications and traveled to different parts of the state to present demonstrations and to distribute informational material. Both ladies had wonderful personalities and charmed everyone they met.

Janet Cameron and Mary Thompson worked with Dr. Laura Harper, Dean of the College of Home Economics, in planning two nutrition workshops for extension professionals, teachers, and others who wanted to update their knowledge in the fast-growing science of human nutrition. The first workshop was held in the summer of 1954 and the second in 1957. Nationally known scientists in the field of nutrition were invited to present and to discuss the new research in the field.

In the 1960's Miss Cameron and Mrs. Thompson developed a weight control program and enrolled several thousand people in Virginia counties. Demonstrations were given on nutrition, low calorie foods, exercise (in cooperation with physical education teachers), and clothing to help achieve a slimmer appearance (in cooperation with the Clothing Specialist).

Just prior to Miss Cameron's retirement, she was working with extension specialists from North Carolina and South Carolina to develop a series of lessons for young homemakers. The specialists saw a need for getting basic nutrition information to young homemakers who might not feel they had time to belong to a home demonstration club. They outlined the content to be taught in a series of six lessons. Each agreed to prepare one or more of the lessons. The lessons were initially printed in VA for use in the three states but were later printed by USDA and distributed nationwide.

Miss Cameron was a member of the American Dietetic Association, the Virginia Dietetic Association, the American Home Economics Association, and the Virginia Home Economics Association for over 50 years. She held several offices in these organizations including Vice-President of the Virginia Dietetic Association, Secretary of the Virginia Dietetic Association, and news editor for the Virginia Dietetic Association. She helped to organize a chapter of Home Economists in Homemaking (now Home Economists in Home and Community) in Blacksburg on her retirement. One of their first projects was to work with the international wives and students, helping them with language, customs, shopping, and general acclimation to the Blacksburg area.

This article has been adapted from a longer publication by Jo Anne Barton and Alice Johnson. The complete document is available in the Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Tech and is part of a scrapbook including many of Miss Cameron's publications. Scanned images of Janet Cameron and her activities are available on the VT Image Database ( Search for Janet Cameron. This database also includes other images associated with the Culinary Collection.

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