I was sad to hear of the death of George Blackburn who, as the New York Times put it, “helped America eat better.”
He was an important influence on my career. I first heard of him in the mid-1970s, when I was working at the medical school at the University of California San Francisco. He and colleagues began publishing articles about the shocking extent of malnutrition—frank starvation !—in patients hospitalized for long periods of time:
- Bistrian BR, Blackburn GL, Vitale J, et al. Prevalence of Malnutrition in General Medical Patients. JAMA. 1976;235(15):1567-1570.
- Blackburn GL, Bistrian BR, Maini BS, et al. Nutritional and metabolic assessment of the hospitalized patient. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 1977;1(1):11-22.
- Blackburn GL. Hospital Malnutrition— A Diagnostic Challenge. Dr Osier, Where Are You? Arch Intern Med. 1979;139(3):278-279.
These papers spurred immediate self-searching at hospitals, leading to the creation of nutrition support services and development of teaching materials by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition—very exciting events at the time.
But his other influence on my career was more personal. In 1988, I was just finishing up two years in Washington DC as the managing editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. This was a staff position that gave me no public credit for the writing, editing, and production supervision I had done on the report. It was released that year, but it had not been an easy process.
Soon after its release, I gave a presentation about the report at a national meeting. After my talk, Dr. Blackburn stood up and asked to make a comment.
What the audience needed to understand, he said, was that the report never would have appeared if it had not been for my work. In essence, he gave me credit for everything that was good about the report, and shifted the blame elsewhere for its failings.
I am grateful for his exceptional kindness and generosity to this day. and will never forget him.