Kansas City scholar remembered for her groundbreaking public health practices and generosity
Colleagues, friends and family of Norge Jerome will gather on Sunday to remember the KU Medical Center faculty member for her work linking culture and diet in the study of public health outcomes, as well as for her support of education, service and the arts.
Norge Winifred Jerome, PhD, wasn’t often in the news. She wasn't a public figure known by Kansas City’s power elite. But over a 40-year career at the University of Kansas Medical Center, she led the department of Preventive Medicine to do groundbreaking public health work in a sub-specialty she created: nutritional anthropology.
Jerome died at Village Shalom Senior Living Center in December 2021 at the age of 91. Colleagues, friends and family of Norge Jerome are invited to a celebration of her life on Sunday between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Unicorn Theater, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Missouri (for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
From Kansas City, Kansas, to the small Black farming town of Nicodemus, Kansas, to Cairo, Egypt, Jerome was among the first to link how a people’s beliefs and rituals affected their food choices and health outcomes.
“I remember her well because of her groundbreaking research, her concern especially for those in need of food and her mentorship of young faculty," said Rita Clifford, PhD, RN, a former associate dean of the KU School of Nursing.
"When I was a young faculty member, she was always there as a friend or colleague," Clifford said.
Inside and outside the workplace, Jerome was seen as a unique force of personality, a small but powerful Black woman who stood up to the white, male hierarchy in the highest echelons of academic and professional circles.
She was a nurturing aunt and mentor to legions of young people, particularly women. Those who knew her recall her joie de vivre that spanned the arts, gardening, reading and nurturing friendships across socioeconomic, racial and geographic boundaries.
Dr. Judith A. Ricci, a longtime friend and colleague, said Jerome was one of the first to realize the study of what people eat was inseparable from the biology and culture of a society.
“This applies to all populations whether they reside in Kansas City, Kansas, the Egyptian Nile Delta or the Amazon rain forest,” Ricci said. “Norge believed that nutrition interventions could be successful only if they were designed and implemented with a full and clear understanding of the cultural beliefs and practices, social environment and organization, technology and physical environment.”
But, Ricci said, her friend was also a fierce advocate for young scholars. She said Jerome selected her over more experienced senior anthropologists in 1981 to take part in a nutrition research project in Egypt.
“Norge saw something in me, believed in my abilities and offered me an opportunity that would help launch my career,” she said. “Norge epitomized the qualities of personal integrity, perseverance, generosity and selfless service to others. As a young woman I aimed to emulate Norge, to embody these characteristics in my own life.”
Jerome never married or had children of her own but was dedicated to her four siblings, nieces and nephews. One of her nieces, Juanita Johnson, said in spite the many articles, obituaries and accounts of her life, few mention her devotion to family.
For example, Johnson said, “Aunty Norge” flew to Grenada when her brother died to execute plans for the care of his three teenage children. She brought one of the nephews to live with her in Kansas City, eventually supporting him through college.
“A good education was important to her,” Johnson said. “She paid tuition for my entire bachelor's degree when I moved to Toronto. She was very supportive of her relatives, especially in their time of need.”
A distinguished career
Jerome was born in the rural village of Mon Plaisir, Grenada. After graduating from a private, all-girls boarding school in the capital of St. Georges at a time most girls didn’t pursue advanced education, she was awarded a leadership training scholarship from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. After teaching school and working at the community YMCA for nine years, she realized what most fulfilled her was academia, “with ideas within (her) head 24 hours a day,” she once wrote.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Howard University with a degree in Nutrition, Dietetics and Biochemistry. She went on to receive a master’s degree in Experimental Foods and Microbiology from the University of Wisconsin, and a doctorate in international nutrition and anthropology in1967.
Her research was largely responsible for the establishment of nutritional anthropology within the broader discipline of anthropology. She was the founder and first president of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology, now known as The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was Director of the Office of Nutrition at the United States Agency for International Development, President of the Association for Women in Development and of Solar Cookers International, an NGO that introduced solar cookers to refugee camps and villages across Africa.
Jerome's Community Nutrition Laboratory developed systems to help local communities monitor food intake. She had a special project in community health in the tiny, Black farming community of Nicodemus, Kansas.
Jerome said her inspiration for marrying anthropology and nutrition came after she saw the adverse impact of foreign aid programs that aimed to address nutrition problems in her home country of Grenada without understanding the habits of its people.
Legacy of philanthropy
Jerome’s commitment to service was widespread.
In 1998, she founded the Dr. Norge W. Jerome Grenada Teachers Awards program as well as providing support for resources at the Main Library in Grenada.
She established the Norge Winifred Jerome Youth Mentorship Program at the Crittenton Children’s Center and well before her death, distributed some of her assets to members of her family. She was a wise investor and created the Norge Winifred Jerome Charitable Fund with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to distribute the rest of her wealth to specific causes of her choosing.
Jerome was a regular subscriber to the Kansas City Symphony and loved attending the yearly performance of Handel’s Messiah. She was an avid patron of theater, particularly the Unicorn.
Cynthia Levin, artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, got to know Jerome when the Unicorn produced "Flyin’ West," about African American women who settled in the all Black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, in the late 19th century. Because Jerome had worked on health and nutrition programs with residents there, Levin tapped her expertise to make sure the production had editorial integrity.
Levin said Jerome became a regular attendee and 20 years ago joined the board of directors. A few years later, she gave a donation that helped build a second performance space at the Unicorn, now known as the Norge Jerome Stage.
“She came to every show at the Unicorn until her health started failing and she could not attend any longer,” Levin said. “She is one of the strongest, most courageous women I have known. The Theatre will live on proudly exhibiting her name.”
Jerome's room at Village Shalom, where she spent the last few years of her life after a diagnosis of dementia, was a diorama of artwork and colorful fabric, pictures and mementos from her life of global travel.
A Village Shalom newsletter regularly features one of the residents. Lori Davidson, director of social services, wrote a piece about Jerome.
“When Norge Jerome moved to Village Shalom, the first thing that struck me was the humble nature that she presented. She almost appeared shy,” Davidson wrote. "Staff immediately connected to Norge and were drawn to her quiet spirit and that big, all-over-her-face smile. While Norge’s memory has faded, her legacy will live far beyond what even she ever imagined.”