Biographical or Historical Information
Dr. Avanelle (Nell) Kirksey (1926-2016) was born in Mulberry, Arkansas to Odell and Blanche Kirksey. She had two brothers, Ozell (who was killed during WWII) and Joe, a prominent figure in the soybean industry. Her father, Dr. Odell Kirksey, was a noted obstetrician and opened Arkansas/ first maternity hospital (the Kirksey Maternity Hospital) where he is estimated to have delivered 4700 babies over the years. Although she was discouraged from practicing medicine, it is likely that Avanelle’s later research interests took some inspiration from her father’s work.
Kirksey received her B.S. in 1947 from the University of Arkansas, with a major in Home Economics and minors in chemistry and biology. Her M.S. in home economics and dietetics was attained in 1950 from the University of Tennessee. Finally, she received her PhD from Pennsylvania State University in 1961 in the field of Nutrition and biochemistry. Her work at Penn State was supervised by Dr. Ruth Pike whose research focused on Vitamin B6, which was another contributing factor to the trajectory of Kirksey’s research. During the course of her postsecondary education, Kirksey taught at a handful of institutions before accepting her position at Purdue University upon the completion of her PhD work.
Kirksey’s work in the area of maternal and infant nutrition has left a lasting impact, both directly and through the ongoing legacy of the many graduate students she mentored. Much of her work focused on the role of Vitamin B6 in maternal health and infant development, as well as the impact of mild to moderate malnutrition. Kirksey is perhaps best known for her involvement in and oversight of the multi-institutional Nutrition Collaborative Research Support Program which examined malnutrition in Egypt, Kenya, and Mexico. Kirksey was also involved in a large scale project designed to develop nutrition education programs in Indonesian colleges. Her work is credited with providing a better overall understanding of the role of micronutrients in maternal and infant health and nutrition.
Kirksey was the recipient of numerous awards and honors over the course of career. She was awarded the title of Meredith Distinguished Professor of Foods and Nutrition during her tenure at Purdue (1961-1994). She was the second woman at Purdue to be awarded a distinguished professorship. Purdue also honored Kirksey’s research by awarding her an Honorary Doctorate. Additionally, Kirksey was a distinguished Alumna at both the University of Arkansas and Penn State. Other awards and honors of note were the Borden Award (1980), the Lederle Award (1994), and her designation as a Fellow of the American Institute of Nutrition (1994). Upon her retirement in 1994, the annual Avanelle Kirksey Lecture Series was established to honor Kirksey’s lasting contributions.
Note written by Virginia Pleasant