Jane Cotton Ebbs ’35, M.S. ’37, was studying to become a physician at the University of Rhode Island when an exciting new field enticed her to switch direction.
She didn’t know it at the time, but that decision would help save millions of lives.
Ebbs, who grew up in Newport, R.I., discovered her calling in human nutrition. She became a professor at the University of Chicago, but left that life to embark on a 33-year civil service career in the office of the Quartermaster General. She was appointed the dietary consultant to Gen. Lucius Clay, military governor of the U.S. Occupied Zone of Germany, and helped feed people in liberated Europe, occupied Germany and Austria during and immediately after World War II.
“She helped the inventor of C-rations and K-rations,” explains Alex Quarles, president and chief executive officer of the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation in Sarasota, Fla. “She knew what people needed to survive.”
Later, Ebbs would travel the world on missions to feed the starving. She worked for the State Department to develop a ration plan for the Chinese Nationalist Army. In the 1950s, she helped develop special feeding and nutrition plans for troops on the ground and prisoners of war in Korea. In 1965, she transferred to a United Nations assignment in Rome, and in 1975, she retired and became an author. Her most enduring work is The Hidden War, about her efforts in Europe.
“She was a pioneer, but she didn’t view herself as a pioneer,” says her friend John Berteau, who also served as her lawyer for three decades. “She viewed herself as someone who had a job to do. It wasn’t terribly interesting (to her) that she was a female. Her skills were so desperately needed.”
Quarles recalls sitting on Ebbs’ balcony overlooking Sarasota Bay, sometimes sipping Famous Grouse scotch, and listening to Ebbs describe what it was like to be a civilian hired by the military at such a momentous time—and how, whenever she didn’t understand anything, she would immediately look it up in a giant encyclopedia.
Ebbs passed away on Christmas Eve, 2014, at the age of 102, leaving a $750,000 legacy to URI’s Department of Philosophy, a lasting memorial to her lifelong quest for knowledge. •