Ramiro Dutra, the founder of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Cal Poly Pomona, died at his Claremont home on April 20. He was 88.
Dutra created a department that combines science with hands-on learning to prepare students to work in the food processing and food service industries, or as researchers, nutritionists, and dietitians.
“Our students, alumni, and faculty owe Professor Dutra a debt of gratitude,” said Professor Harmit Singh, the current department chair. “We would not be where we are today without Professor Dutra’s hard work and dedication to create and build the nutrition and food science program.”
Lisa Kessler, interim dean of the Huntley College of Agriculture that is home to the department, said Dutra’s legacy is indelible.
“His passion and commitment to this college – and particularly to advancing the field of nutrition and food science – is reflected by the excellence we see today in the department and the outstanding alumni it has produced,” Kessler said.
Born in Ponta Delgada in the Azores, Portugal, Dutra came to the United States when he was 17, traveling aboard a Liberty Ship to New York City. He made his way to California by bus, where he enrolled at UC Davis.
Dutra earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there before earning his doctorate in agricultural and food chemistry also at UC Davis.
He came to Cal Poly Pomona in 1959 when he was hired to teach chemistry classes in the physical sciences department. Although he was new to the university, he fully subscribed to its hands-on learning philosophy.
“Instead of having abstract applications of chemical reactions, I would bring as examples things from real life, and the real life that I was acquainted with was food technology, food chemistry and nutrition,” Dutra recalled in a 2015 interview. “Man, the students lapped it up.”
His chemistry classes were so popular that Dutra soon gained permission from administrators to create actual courses in foods and nutrition. Eventually, the Department of Foods and Nutrition was established in the College of Agriculture in 1965 with Dutra as its first chair and only full-time instructor. He started with just 17 students and an initial budget of $500.
Today, 55 years later, the program – now known as the Department of Nutrition and Food Science – has 11 tenure-track faculty members, 14 lecturers, and more than 600 students.
The department has the largest food science and technology program in Southern California, one that regularly demonstrates excellence in national competitions.
In the early days, however, there was no tenure, limit on teaching loads, or travel budgets. Dutra often paid for lab supplies out of his pocket and spent his own time and money on the road promoting the fledgling program.
He was passionate about teaching and demanding of his students.
“Dr. Dutra was a most brilliant, gifted man whose enthusiasm and curiosity for learning was infectious. He dedicated his life to his students, his department and to Cal Poly Pomona,” said Sue (Boyer) Godfrey (’70, foods and nutrition). “His smile was warm and welcoming along with his personal availability whenever you needed help or encouragement. He inspired me to be curious, inquisitive and strive for excellence in everything I did and wished to achieve.”
During Dutra’s tenure, the department saw the construction of Building 7 in 1970 with a food chemistry and analysis laboratory, two kitchen laboratories, four offices for faculty, and the main department office.
In addition, it received accreditation from the American Dietetic Association in 1987 to offer a post-baccalaureate dietetic internship. Prior to accreditation, the department had to send its graduates to internship programs at other universities.
Dutra received several awards during his long career, including the Outstanding Educators of America, the Gamma Sigma Delta Teaching Merit Award, and Cal Poly Pomona Outstanding Professor.
An expert in food chemistry and nutrition, he served as president of the California Nutrition Council and had research interests in organoleptic compounds, milk chemistry, and amino acid fortification of carbohydrate foods for tropical countries.
Dutra also worked as a visiting professor in several countries in Europe and Latin America and was a member of a Cal Poly Pomona team that was stationed in Greece in 1972 to create a new system of five technical universities.
In addition, he worked with the Meals for Millions Foundation for 11 years in nutrition research and training of technical personnel on behalf of Third World countries.
Dutra remained deeply connected to his native Portugal and its people, serving as the first elected president of the Southern California Council of Portuguese Communities. He was honored by the Portuguese government and the Portuguese Union of the State of California.
He also assisted in the establishment of several new universities in Portugal and single-handedly replaced the collection at one of the university’s libraries after it was destroyed by fire. For his efforts, the Portuguese president knighted him.
In addition to serving as the department’s first chair, Dutra also was associate dean and acting dean for the College of Agriculture. He retired in 1995, but briefly returned as a part-time faculty member.
During the Department of Nutrition and Food Science’s 50Th Anniversary Gala in 2015, Dutra donated $10,000: half to the Dutra Scholarship Fund and half to purchase equipment for the food technology laboratory.
Dutra was preceded in death by his wife of 36 years, Natalia. He is survived by a daughter, Grace, of Claremont, and a son, Henry, of Fontana. In lieu of flowers, the family has said donations may be made to the Cal Poly Pomona Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences or the university’s Dutra Scholarship Fund.
Contributions also can be made to the USC Norris Cancer Center, Habitat for Humanity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Disabled American Veterans, Doctors Without Borders, Los Angeles Mission and Boy’s Town.