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Dr. Deborah Levine was interviewed by Michelle Miller of CBS News
in the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Professor’s research into the diet of William Howard Taft draws national attention

Dr. Deborah I. Levine’s research into a weighty topic — the dieting successes and failures of President William Howard Taft — drew attention from the national media and brought a CBS News team to Providence College for an interview that was broadcast on national television.

Levine, an assistant professor of health policy and management since 2009, wrote “Corpulence and Correspondence: President William H. Taft and the Medical Management of Obesity,” published October 14 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the leading medical journals in the country.

Using letters she discovered during research in the Library of Congress, Levine described how Taft, serving in the cabinet of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, hired a physician in London to help him craft a weight-loss plan. Taft lost 70 pounds in a year, but regained much of it, becoming the “the first celebrity yoyo dieter,” Levine said.

Levine, whose specialties include the history of science, medicine, and the American health care system, found Taft's dieting efforts fascinating. During the early 20th century, the world was becoming aware of obesity as a medical problem, but Taft's letters are the only insight into dieting advice at the time, she said.

And though Taft had a “brilliant legal mind” — he was the only man to serve as president, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and secretary of war — he was derided for his weight and often is remembered as the president who got stuck in his bathtub, an incident that may never have occurred, Levine said. Public perception of Taft, then and now, was colored by his obesity, she said.

Levine’s research paper caught the attention of national publications. She was interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Associated Press. Her research even received a mention on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

On Friday, October 11, a four-member crew from CBS News in New York arrived at the College and, over the course of several hours, transformed the lounge in the Center for Teaching Excellence in the Feinstein Academic Center into a television studio. The resulting segment was broadcast Tuesday, October 15, as part of “CBS Morning Rounds.”   

The CBS producer, Heather Won Tesoriero, had spoken by telephone with Levine a few days before to decide how well the professor would come across on television.

“I said, ‘She’s fantastic, we have to go there!’” Tesoriero recounted.

Levine, who was interviewed by correspondent Michelle Miller, called the reaction to her article “fantastic.”

“Part of what excites me about my scholarship is finding ways to help diverse audiences appreciate the value of the humanities, particularly my field, the history of medicine,” Levine said. “It is one of the great things about being in an interdisciplinary program — like health policy and management at PC — that I am encouraged to try to find ways to talk to these groups.”

“Very delicious icing on the cake”

Levine, who is a native of Pittsburgh, earned a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University in 2008. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis and was awarded the Pressman-Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award for career development from the American Association for the History of Medicine, a prize that recognizes promising book projects by junior scholars. 

In addition to her published articles, she is completing a book, Managing Bodies in the Land of Plenty: Diet, Nutrition, and Obesity in America. She also has taught an interdisciplinary colloquium in PC’s Development of Western Civilization Program.

Being published in the Annals of Internal Medicine was gratifying in itself, Levine said, because her article was peer reviewed by historians and physicians, and “both groups had to find the piece to be rigorous and relevant.” Attention in the popular media has been “very delicious icing on the cake,” she said.

“It’s been so much fun to see my work show up in newspapers across the U.S., and the interview with CBS helped me begin to figure out ways to communicate my ideas about the history of obesity to a big audience from all around the country,” Levine said. “Scholarship can be a long and lonely process, and seeing that so many people are finding my work interesting has been both humbling and thrilling.”

Nicole Manupella ’14 (Troy, N.Y.), a marketing major and a student worker in PC’s public affairs and community relations office, had the opportunity to chat with Miller while camera technician John Haygood and audio technician Abraham Cavin worked to prepare the room for the interview with Levine.

“The CBS team members were amiable and offered helpful advice for an up-and-coming graduate,” said Manupella, who was excited to see “the behind-the-scenes logistics and the way a professional team cooperates to make it all come together for the final product.”

“I believe that learning through experience is one of the best things you can do,” said Manupella. “Getting the chance to interact with members of one of the biggest commercial television networks made for a great experience for a college senior anticipating a potential career in media relations. Additionally, to have it happen at our very own college community was quite exciting. It proves that we have a lot to offer at Providence College.”


— Vicki-Ann Downing

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