Time Magazine has selected Harold McGee, Ph.D., winner of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 2008 Grady-Stack Award, as one of its 100 most influential people in the world. The magazine called McGee’s work the “Rosetta stone” of the culinary world: “Before it, cooking was governed by tradition, superstition and dogma. Armed with reason and natural curiosity, McGee flipped on the science switch, and suddenly there was light.”
ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, selected McGee for the Grady-Stack Award, one of the most prestigious in science journalism, for his contributions to food science, especially explaining the chemistry of cooking to both a scientific and a general audience.
His lifetime of work combines culinary art with science and history to discuss and explain topics ranging from common cooking phenomena to more complex subjects, such as the links between diet and future health problems, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. More specifically, he has written about nitrites in salt-cured meats, the peppery pungency of olive oil, and genetically engineering the tomatoes of tomorrow.
McGee’s first book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, won the Andre Simon Memorial Fund Book Award in Britain in 1986. He has written three others, including a second edition of On Food and Cooking published 20 years later, which is a revised and enlarged edition of the original. As a result of heavy demand, the revised edition went through five additional printings in six months. The International Association of Culinary Professionals named it the best food reference book in 2004, as did the James Beard Foundation the following year.
Born in 1951, McGee graduated in 1973 from California Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1978, he earned his Ph.D. in English Literature from Yale University, where he was an instructor from 1977 to 1979.
His writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Nature, the World Book Encyclopedia, The Art of Eating, Food & Wine and Physics Today. He has given presentations at the Culinary Institute of America, Madrid Fusion, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society. McGee has appeared on several television and radio programs, including CNN, the National Geographic Channel, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
Among McGee’s other professional honors are food writer of the year by Bon Appetit magazine in 2005, pioneer in culinology by the Research Chefs Association in 2000 and Who’s Who in American Food by the James Beard Foundation in 1995.
The Grady-Stack Award is an annual award named for James T. Grady and James H. Stack, two former managers of the ACS News Service. Established in 1955, the award recognizes and stimulates outstanding reporting that promotes the public’s understanding of chemistry, chemical engineering and related fields. The award consists of $3,000, a gold medallion and a bronze replica. McGee will receive the award in April at the ACS’ National Meeting in New Orleans.
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— John Simpson