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Audrey Josephine Cahn (1905–2008)

by Leann Tilley and Bruce Stone

Audrey Josephine Cahn, the first woman to complete the newly established agriculture degree at Melbourne University in 1928 and who went on to pioneer the academic field of dietetics, has died at a retirement village in Hughes in the ACT. She was 102.

Cahn, who was born in the imposing sandstone Cloisters on the Melbourne University campus, was drawn genetically to the sciences: her father, William Osborne, had arrived in 1903 as professor of physiology, biochemistry and histology; her mother, Ethel Goodson, was a medical practitioner and industrial hygienist.

Her mother was also interested in nutrition and conducted a survey of dietetics units in American hospitals for the Department of Health. Her report led to the establishment of the first dietetics school in Victoria, at St Vincent's Hospital.

Her early exposure engendered in Cahn a lifelong passion for nutritional science. She matriculated from Merton Hall Grammar School in 1922 and enrolled at Melbourne University, where she was the first woman to complete an agriculture degree, obtaining exhibitions in botany and zoology.

Her first job was with Kraft, as a microbiologist and food analyst. She married architect Leslie Cahn, and a year later gave birth to twin girls. Leslie travelled to the US and Europe looking for work, and after two years she joined him in Ireland, but the marriage did not survive the years of separation.

In Australia of the 1930s, a married woman with children had few opportunities for professional employment in the agricultural or scientific areas, so she was forced to retrain at the newly opened dietetics unit at St Vincent's Hospital and soon became the chief dietitian, before moving to the Victorian Mental Hygiene Department, and then on to the Royal Perth Hospital. With the outbreak of World War II, she returned to Melbourne to join the army as chief dietician at the Heidelberg Military Hospital, and achieved the rank of major.

Earlier, in 1936, she was a founding member of the Dietetics Association, which lobbied the Victorian Government to adopt a registration procedure that was needed, she argued, to stop "quacks" from taking over the field. At about this time, her father, Professor Osborne, set up a diploma of dietetics at Melbourne University.

Cahn updated her qualifications by submitting a diploma of dietetics thesis on "Aspects of Hospital Dietetics". In 1947, she was employed by Melbourne University as a lecturer in dietetics on an annual salary of £870 — with complete responsibility for teaching nutrition and dietetics. Students could graduate with a BSc (nutrition), then proceed to a diploma of dietetics. She taught nutrition as a "wholistic" rather than a "reductionist" discipline. She believed in a well-balanced diet and disapproved of high-dose vitamin supplements and other pill-based nutritional approaches. Cahn felt that the field of nutrition suffered because it evolved as a hospital-based discipline aimed at therapeutic intervention. She was ahead of her times in believing that nutrition and dietetics should be used as preventive medicine.

Throughout her career, Cahn fought a running battle with the university's head of biochemistry, Victor Trikojus, who thought of nutrition as "soft" or "women's" science. However, her discipline received support from other quarters. In the late 1940s, Melbourne University was given £20,000 by Nicholas Pty Ltd (Aspro) to set up a nutrition department. This was combined with £50,000 from the Russell Grimwade legacy and used to build a new biochemistry building. When the building was completed in 1961, a nutrition and dietetics unit was set up, and Cahn, now a senior lecturer in nutrition and applied dietetics, continued in charge.

During her time at Melbourne University (1947-68), Cahn undertook research in nutritional biochemistry, studied the physical properties and energy value of common dietary foods, compiled calorie tables, and wrote articles on the safety of food additives. She was an early proponent of the need to reduce fat intake and to substitute polyunsaturated fatty acids for saturated fats. With colleagues in the anatomy department, she participated in a 17-year longitudinal study of Child Growth in Melbourne (1954-71). Data from this study was used to construct an Atlas of Growth, which was compared with similar data for British and American children. The study found that Australian children were overweight and inactive compared with their peers elsewhere. Her body of work is greatly respected.

Cahn painted and sculpted throughout her life and was a foundation member of the Potter's Cottage group. For many years she lived at White Cottage in Warrandyte; it had been the gatekeeper's residence on her family's Yarra frontage property.

In 1992, she moved to Murrumbateman, near Canberra, to live with her daughter Judy Laver. As a centenarian, Cahn was active and lucid. Despite the gradual loss of her sight, her memory of the early years remained sharp. The secret to longevity, she said, was "good genes and good luck".

Her daughters Judy and Jill, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren survive her.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Leann Tilley and Bruce Stone, 'Cahn, Audrey Josephine (1905–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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