Michael Latham, a leading nutritionist and tropical public health specialist who staunchly opposed the marketing of infant formula as a replacement for breast-feeding in developing countries, died April 1 in Boston of pneumonia. He was 82.
Dr. Latham, an emeritus professor of international nutrition at Cornell University, grew up in East Africa and was known for decades as a leading advocate for the world’s poor and least privileged.
After studying medicine in Ireland, he returned to Africa in the mid-1950s and served for a decade in the nation now known as Tanzania. He worked as a medical officer in the British colonial government and then continued, after the country won independence in the early 1960s, as director of nutrition in the ministry of health.
He noticed that as breast-feeding returned to fashion in the West, foreign manufacturers of infant formula were seeking new markets in the developing world, intensifying their advertising to women in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Dr. Latham became one of the first and most successful opponents of such efforts. Impoverished mothers sought to stretch the formula, he argued, over-diluting it and thus starving their babies of calories and nutrients.
Moreover, sanitation problems in many rural communities meant that women mixed the formula powder with polluted water, increasing their children’s chances of contracting diarrhea.
“Advertisements imply that nice people with nice houses who want nice babies, bottle feed their babies,” Dr. Latham and his colleague Ted Greiner wrote in a 1976 report.
Actually, they continued, “in many instances, placing an infant on a bottle is tantamount to signing the death certificate of the child.”
Dr. Latham’s arguments caught the attention of international newspapers, American politicians and influential health and development agencies. In 1981, the World Health Organization adopted a set of voluntary restrictions on marketing formula in developing nations, helping curb the practice.
Nestle, one of the foremost formula manufacturers, did not agree to the restrictions until 1984, after a years-long boycott of its U.S. products by Dr. Latham and other high-profile activists, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, pediatrician Benjamin Spock and union leader Cesar Chavez.
Dr. Latham founded the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action in 1991, continuing his pro-breast-feeding crusade throughout his career.
In recent years, he had challenged popular wisdom with his criticism of a sprawling effort to distribute Vitamin A capsules to hundreds of millions of poor children around the world.
The capsules had been widely seen as a magic bullet to reduce child mortality and protect against disease. Synthesizing a raft of research articles written by scientists working around the world, Dr. Latham criticized the “great Vitamin A fiasco,” calling the approach ineffective at best.
Distributing megadoses of a vitamin in pill form enriches pharmaceutical companies and makes foreign nations dependent on aid, but has had no discernible positive effect on children’s health, Dr. Latham wrote in the May 2010 issue of the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.
He recommended instead that public health officers concentrate on what he called “self-reliant approaches”: promoting breast-feeding, treating parasitic infections and encouraging people to grow and consume nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables in home, school and community gardens.
Michael Charles Latham was born May 6, 1928, in Kilosa, Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, where his father was stationed as a doctor.
His mother, Gwynneth, kept a journal throughout the family’s stay in Africa. Dr. Latham found the journal after her death and printed selections from it, along with his own memoirs of life abroad, in a 1995 book, “Kilimanjaro Tales: The Saga of a Medical Family in Africa.”
He received a medical degree from Dublin University in 1952 and then continued training at hospitals in London and Los Angeles before taking an advanced degree, in 1958, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 1965, after leaving Tanzania, he received a master’s degree in public health and nutrition from Harvard University.
Dr. Latham stayed on at Harvard as a member of the public health faculty until 1968, when he became a full professor at Cornell.
Over the next quarter century, he was instrumental in turning the Cornell Program in International Nutrition into one of the nation’s leading research and training centers in nutrition science.
According to Cornell, survivors include his life partner, Lani Stephenson, and two sons.
Dr. Latham wrote several books and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles. He consulted with a number of international agencies, including the United Nations and the World Bank. During the mid-1990s, he also advised Fidel Castro on how to deal with an epidemic in Cuba of neuropathy, a nerve disorder.
He received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II and in 2009 was named a “living legend” at the 19th International Congress of Nutrition.