Owen Fennema: Master Teacher and Educator

January 23, 1929–August 1, 2012


An educator is one who educates. So what is, to “educate?” The 4th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines to “educate” as “to provide with knowledge or training in a particular area or for a particular purpose.” So what is a teacher? The same dictionary defines teacher as “one who teaches, especially one hired to teach,” and to “teach” is “to impart knowledge or skill”.

From the dictionary point of view there does not seem to be a great difference between “educate” and “teach” and, therefore, between “educator” and “teacher.” But, “to provide knowledge” and “to impart knowledge” does seem to me to imply slightly different objectives. Implied in “providing knowledge” suggests that the provider not only imparts knowledge but he/she also gives a framework in which that knowledge can be useful. Given that I have been picky about the difference between to “educate” and to “teach,” allow me to apply both terms to Professor Owen Fennema and argue that he was a consummate educator and teacher.

Owen Fennema, the Educator

There are 2 sterling examples to illustrate my thesis that Owen Fennema was an educator. The first revolves around the evolution of food technology into food science. The late Professor William Powrie was an office mate of Owen's at UW-Madison and wrote a sterling eulogy about Owen in the September 2012 issue of the Phi Tau Sigma newsletter (http://www.phitausigma.org/newsletter). In this tribute Professor Powrie pays special attention to the development of Owen's quest to transform food technology into food science. The transformation began in 1960, when Owen and Professor Powrie were assigned to teach a food chemistry course in the newly transformed curriculum in the Dept. of Dairy and Food Industries, the predecessor of the Dept. of Food Science at UW-Madison.

Over the next 10 years, Owen refined his thoughts about teaching food science and found interest in Mau Dekker, a Dutchman publisher (Owen was Dutch) who wanted to get into publishing food science books. Owen proposed 3 books in a series of “Principles of Food Science.” One part was food chemistry, another was food microbiology, and the 3rd was principles of food preservations. Although authors and contributors were lined up for all 3, only 2 were ever published, with food microbiology not seeing the printed page.

Owen's thinking about food chemistry resulted in the concept of chemical reactions within the context of structured systems, such as tissue, emulsions, or dispersions. In the early 1970s, Owen decided to enlist 19 colleagues who were experts in specific subjects within food chemistry (like water, proteins, lipids, emulsions, and so on). What emerged in 1976 were chapters knitted together by Owen's relentless and careful editing into a textbook entitled, “Principles of Food Science. Part 1: Food Chemistry,” published by Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Thier (1976), in his review of the new textbook, outlined the book as follows: “The treatment begins with the main constituents of foods, such as water and ice, carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, then substances occurring in lower concentrations such as enzymes, vitamins, and inorganic compounds, dyes, and flavoring substances, as well as other desirable or undesirable constituents or additives. Subsequent sections are directed at the structure of foodstuffs and describe the make-up and properties of muscle tissue and plant tissue, of dispersions, and of liquid foods such as milk and eggs.” Thier's final conclusion is, “…the book gives a valuable and comprehensive reflection of the whole field and records the scientific principles of food chemistry on the basis of the most recent state of knowledge.”

In this book, it is easy to see the logical flow of the chemical concepts and science of food. This book and its companion textbook entitled, “Principles of Food Science. Part 2. Physical Methods of Food Preservation” by Karel, Lund, and Fennema, were adopted in many food science departments that were beginning to emerge from teaching food technology mostly along the lines of commodities to chemical, physical, and biological principles of foods. That kind of lasting influence on the field is what an educator does.

The 2nd example to make the point is that an educator makes a lasting contribution not only through his or her teaching of students, but also on the continued growth and development of the subject area. In this case, the continued growth and development was the establishment of this journal, the Journal of Food Science Education. Although Owen wasn't the originator of the idea of a journal supporting the teaching of food science and technology (that idea sprung from Grady Chism, head of the Education Division in about 1996), he quickly signed on as an enthusiastic supporter and lobbied the Executive Committee to adopt the idea.

Owen fostered the idea of an e-journal. In fact, the journal was initially assigned to the web department within IFT, with James Giese and Lori Conley taking the lead in production. In 2002 the journal became a reality with Wayne Iwaoka as the 1st scientific editor. In Owen's first editorial in JFSE (Fennema 2002) he wrote, “Grady Chism, acting in behalf of the Education Division, deserves most of the credit for convincing the IFT Executive Committee to approve creation of the journal, and JFSE Scientific Editor Wayne Iwaoka, International Scientific Editor Albert McGill, and their Board of Editors deserve credit beyond my ability to express for their fine preparatory work during the past 2 years.” As they say, the rest is history. The journal has contributed significantly to an improvement in the science of teaching food science.

Owen Fennema, the Teacher

I, along with about 50 other people, were privileged to be students who received advanced degrees with Owen. Then there were the more than 600 undergraduate and graduate students at UW-Madison who were in the courses that Owen taught (food processing tissue systems and food processing laboratory). Finally, there were the many thousands who attended workshops, seminars, and lectures that Owen delivered here, there, and everywhere. We all witnessed first-hand the thoughtful process with which Professor Fennema developed a topic. Some thoughts on these contributions are expressed in the accompanying by-line.

In thinking about the qualities of a teacher, there are obvious requirements that must be met, without which significant learning does not occur (or teaching is not accomplished). Essential elements include mastery of the subject matter, prioritizing the knowledge so that learners can connect the relevant parts, building up from a foundation, understanding the background of the audience, developing and employing relevant and useful methods to assess learning, keeping current in the science, using a variety of modes to teach (challenger, moderator, lecturer, debater, and so on), and continuously reviewing and refining the material based on feedback and adoption of new ideas. Owen practiced these principles in his own teaching and lecturing, and, in 1978, his teaching was recognized by receiving IFT's William V. Cruess Award for excellence in teaching.

In summary, Professor Fennema permanently altered the field of food science and technology through his role as an educator and a teacher. His legacy challenges us to push the frontiers of our discipline, not just in generating knowledge but, as importantly, identifying and practicing ways of teaching the principles. In the final analysis, it is the application of those principles to real foods for real people with real diets that matters. That is accomplished by educated people. Owen provided immeasurable assistance in helping us carrying out our roles as educators and teachers.

–Daryl Lund, PhD 1968, Major Professor Owen Fennema

Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison

Quotes from those who learned from Owen Fennema

Susan Kamper

Sr. Technology Manager

General Mills

“I have taken Dr. Fennema to work with me every day for the past 30 years. Dr. Fennema was my teacher and advisor at the Univ. of Wisconsin.

He not only taught me Food Chemistry, he taught me how to approach product development by understanding the chemical and physical properties of food. I can't remember Dr. Fennema ever giving me an answer to one of my questions. Instead, he would ask me several questions to stretch my thinking to solve the problem. Throughout my career I have tried to teach Dr. Fennema's principles to others in the food industry to continue his legacy.”

Juelene Beck

Principal, Juelene Beck & Associates

Chain Restaurant Industry Consulting Firm

“Owen was a terrific food chemistry teacher because he was straight-forward and insightful in the way he communicated concepts, and very student-oriented. He had a way of drawing us in to the magic of what he was teaching.”

Dr. Michael Doyle

Regents Professor and Director

Center for Food Safety, Univ. of Georgia

“Whenever I think of Owen Fennema, I have such good memories of my graduate student days at UW-Madison where I had the thrill of being taught Food Chemistry by a living legend, the man who wrote the book that has long been the bible for food chemists… [He] certainly made us all better scientists, even us food microbiologists.”

Dr. Daryl Lund

Professor Emeritus, UW Madison

Editor in Chief Emeritus, IFT

“Owen's impact on our discipline cannot be overstated. Dr FOOD CHEMISTRY should be his title. The International Union of Food Science and Technology, the US Institute of Food Technologists, and his founding role in the International Academy of Food Science and Technology (where he served as its first President) all owe him such a great debt of gratitude. His dutchness of keen intellect, forthright honesty, high degree of integrity, and humaneness were always characteristics of his activity in whatever he pursued.”

Dr. James Behnke

Chief Technical Officer Retired

The Pillsbury Company

“I was indeed fortunate to have Owen Fennema as my major professor, mentor and life-long friend. He can rightfully be called the father of Food Chemistry. The multiple editions of his Food Chemistry reference books have been utilized by generations of students and food scientists and continue to serve as his legacy. Owen's contributions to Food Science cannot be overstated. He was truly a legend in our field.”

Ancillary