The Department of Food Science was formed in 1983 from the already-existing Food Sciences Institute. The Institute was comprised of nine faculty members from various departments in the School of Agriculture. Those departments included Horticulture, Animal Science, Agronomy, and Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Dr. Bernard Liska, a food scientist, was Dean of the School of Agriculture at the time and understood the importance of formalizing the group into a department, bridging the gap between production agriculture and value-added products.
Dr. Liska named Dr. Philip Nelson, Head of the Institute, to be the first Head for the newly formed Department of Food Sciences. Nelson had assembled the Institute around disciplines, not commodity groups, and elected to build the new department in the same manner. This allowed for more flexibility and the ability to undertake a wide variety of research projects. Nelson’s own career to this point was developing bulk aseptic storage, aseptic bag-in-box packaging, and tomato processing. His successes in aseptic processing helped to save the remnants of the tomato industry in the state of Indiana and created a new, viable way to store and package seasonal products.
Throughout his years in research, he collaborated with members of the industry. When confronted with developing the new department, Nelson approached the industry to help him set the foundation for a cutting-edge department. Dr. Arnold “Bud” Denton, a retiring Senior Vice President from Campbell’s Soup, worked with the faculty to create a list of business principles that remain in place today. Vision and Mission Statements were developed, and the group agreed that they had two customers; students and the industry. (Though a standard practice today, at the time, these principles were unheard of for an academic entity.)
The faculty members of the new department had already been working under these business principles but had not put them in this form. Nelson, due to his work in aseptic processing and packaging, was already emulating businesses. He had several patents and was always looking for the next trend. Another enterprising faculty member was Dr. Fred Babel. Dr. Babel had a successful patent on cottage cheese. Several faculty were part of the Purdue Creamery, a business run by the University. The creamery was closed by the University when up-keep of the facilities became too costly.
The Department was housed initially in Smith Hall, a 1913 building situated on State Street. A remodeled Smith Hall satisfied the needs of the Department at the moment but it was always a vision of Nelson’s to have a new departmental building.
Dr. Nelson recognized the strength of marketing. By building strong research areas around the expertise of the faculty, research centers could be developed and marketed. In 1985, Dr. Nelson created a center around carbohydrate chemistry. Purdue Professor Emeritus, Roy Whistler, allowed his name to be used by the center and the Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Chemistry was founded. Dr. Whistler, considered by many to be the father of modern day carbohydrate chemistry, and Dr. Phil Nelson found a Whistler-protégé to become the Center Director, Dr. Jim BeMiller. Prior to coming to Purdue for this position, BeMiller was the Chairman of the Department of Medical Biochemistry at Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine.
Over the next several years, the Department of Food Science made several great strides. The Industrial Associates group was formed. Industry representatives, agreeing with the initiatives, projects, and mission of the Department, provide all-important funds for student assistance, curriculum development and other programming.
The Aseptic Workshop, held for the first time in 1983, is now accepted as an annual event. Originally, the workshop was expected to be held once, and then whenever demand was high enough to hold it. Since inception, the Aseptic Workshop has been in high demand, being held every year. The workshop is continually updated and has been held each year along with other similar workshops developed for company-specific products, and even developed for the international markets.
In 1998, the Department of Food Science moved into its new 122,000-square foot Food Science Building. The building was built with $22 million from the state of Indiana along with an additional $7 million from private and corporate fund raising. Nelson spearheaded the efforts to fulfill his dream of a food science building. The building maintains the idea of being formed around a discipline with each floor representing areas of expertise. Several floors house offices and lab space for both Food Science faculty and faculty from Agriculture and Biological Engineering’s Food Process Engineering program.
As the Department matured, it was recognized that our alumni were creating a legacy of excellence throughout the world. Their contributions to food science from their roles in government, academia, and industry were quickly helping us achieve our mission of being recognized as the best food science program in the world. The Department’s faculty created the Outstanding Food Science Awards, to allow us to recognize those who have “carried our banner” with pride. The annual event has been held each year since 2001.
In 2003, Dr. Nelson stepped down as Head and continued his role as a researcher and teacher. Dr. Suzanne Nielsen, a food chemist who was hired a month before the department was formed, was named the new Head.
During Dr. Suzanne Nielsen’s years as Department Head (2003-2013), she hired 11 tenure-track faculty members, and the number of administrative professional staff members in the department doubled. These increases occurred as research dollars accessed by faculty doubled, and the department added strength in the areas of nanotechnology and foods for health. Programs were put in place to mentor new faculty and staff and to create objective criteria for performance evaluation. The department doubled engagement efforts through Extension programs and expanded communication and interactions with industry and alumni. A major focus of Dr. Nielsen was on strengthening the graduate program, to complement the department’s already strong and well-known undergraduate program. Increased funding obtained at the college, university, and national levels allowed the department to increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of the graduate program, and create special programs for graduate student professional development. At the same time, undergraduate student numbers increased from 130 to 170. To help support the rapidly growing department, over $4 M in endowments were obtained to support department needs. A number of new and renovated facilities in the building were completed and many display cabinets were built. The long-time stark exterior of the Food Science Building was finally enhanced by successful efforts to get trees planted around the building in 2005, landscaping done in 2008, and a proper front entrance built in 2011. This latter project was announced in July 2010, when the Food Science Building was renamed the Philip E. Nelson Hall of Food Science to honor Dr. Nelson’s having won the World Food Prize in 2007, and his long-time contributions to the Department, the University, and the food industry.