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Mattie Rae Spivey Fox: Diet and Nutrition Researcher

Mattie Rae Spivey Fox, Ph. D. - Womens History MonthMattie Rae Spivey Fox, Ph. D., was born on a ranch near the north central Texas town of Joy on February 23, 1923.  After receiving her bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in chemistry from Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, in 1943, she worked briefly as a chemist with the Humble Oil and Refining Company on synthetic rubber development.  That would not be her last experience with the oil industry;  the Spivey ranch turned out to be a successful oil-producing property.

She moved to Iowa State University on a Senior Research Fellowship in 1945, where she developed an interest in nutritional science, and received a M. S. in 1947.  That year she moved to Washington, D. C., to take a position as a nutritional analyst with the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and she started her pursuit of a Ph. D. in biochemistry at George Washington University, which she earned in 1953.  Two years prior to that she had moved to the National Institutes of Health, where she was a research biochemist in the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolic, and Digestive Diseases.

Eleven years later Dr. Fox launched her career at the Food and Drug Administration, where she researched essential minerals, toxic elements, and the roles they play in metabolism and nutrition.  To facilitate these studies, Dr. Fox was among the earliest investigators to use Japanese quail, which offered many advantages over other animals traditionally used in nutritional research:  they grow much more rapidly, they are very sensitive to nutritional deficiencies, they begin laying eggs much sooner than chickens, and because of their small size are much more economical to maintain.  Within a year five generations can be hatched and matured. A redwood incubator used in her research is now on display at FDA’s White Oak headquarters.

Mattie Rae Spivey Fox, Ph. D. with Lab Staff
Dr. Mattie Rae Spivey Fox, surrounded by a colony of Japanese quail, confers with laboratory staff in the 1960s.
The nearly 100 scientific papers she produced not only shed light on trace nutrients and their role in the diet—vital information for FDA’s responsibility to set standards for such nutrients when added to foods—they also evidenced Dr. Fox’s role in mentoring promising scientists, and her collaborative investigations involved scientists and organizations around the world.  These studies included zinc deficiency among children in Iran, soybeans as a food product and their influence on the bioavailability of zinc, and the impact of carbohydrate-free diets on the metabolism of minerals.  Dr. Fox’s expertise in the science of nutrition led to her involvement in a wide variety of organizations and institutions, including the National Research Council, the American Medical Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Center for Health Statistics.  In 1975 she received the Award of Merit from the FDA.  She died in 1988, three years after retiring from FDA.

The passion she maintained for her field of study and her keen interest in facilitating the professional advancement of those she mentored are still fondly recalled by those who worked with her over the years.  Dr. Mattie Rae Spivey Fox made substantial contributions to the field of trace nutrient investigations and the work of the FDA in regulating food, and thereby advanced the health and well-being of the public.

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