Barnard professor explores the rich, sweet history of milk

September 23, 2011 By Meghan Berry, Columbia University

Throughout history, milk has been a symbol of motherhood and fertility, but also prosperity, health and strength. In Hindu mythology a churning ocean of milk releases the nectar of immortality. Statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis show her nursing her son, Horus. Romans credited the creation of the Milky Way to the spraying breast milk of the goddess Juno.

Such stories have long intrigued Deborah Valenze, a Barnard professor who specializes in the social and cultural of 18th-and 19th-century Britain and teaches in the Columbia history program. With a particular interest in food and agriculture, she has offered courses such as “A Social and Cultural History of Food in Europe” and “Edible Conflicts: A History of Food.”

Now Valenze, who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in April, has turned her storyteller’s eye on this staple of the global diet in her new book, : A Local and Global History, released in June by Yale University Press. For so ubiquitous a drink, the literature was surprisingly sparse, she said. The story of milk had been told from culinary and commercial perspectives, but its cultural significance was all but ignored.

“Milk is perceived locally, meaning people see it differently depending where they’ve been brought up,” Valenze said. “I had to set aside my own ideas about it and ask, ‘How did this era see milk?’”

Her book chronicles milk’s production and interaction with culture from its earliest references in Babylonian cuneiform to modern times—a history of the world through a lactose lens.

During the Renaissance, when only the wealthy could afford rudimentary ice boxes, it was considered dangerous to consume dairy. Yet people indulged in cheeses, cream and even cheesecake; the sumptuousness combined with an element of risk made the eating experience exciting, Valenze said. In colonial America, milk denoted . “Americans found the cow and household dairy harmonious with the idea of independence,” Valenze explained.

She found letters from Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle (known for coining the term “the dismal science,” a reference to economics) describing how he drank milk to cure his indigestion. “Some believed that milk was some kind of antidote to systems that had been overfed,” she said. “It was used as treatment in sanatoriums. It became part of the medical establishment.”

Just before World War I, American biochemist Elmer McCollum discovered vitamin A, further bolstering milk’s status as a health food. McCollum, who also discovered vitamins B and D, was sent around the country by President Herbert Hoover to espouse the health benefits of dairy, giving sales boosts to such new products as ice cream and powdered milk.

“Then milk was seen as nutritious—a builder of bones and strength,” Valenze said. “This was very attractive during wartime. People thought that with the right diet, countries could build a strong population.”

Yet Milk’s final chapter, “Milk Today,” dips into negative perceptions of dairy. The 1970s-era cholesterol consciousness brought unwanted attention to milk’s fat content, spurring the production of skim, 1 percent and 2 percent milk. Americans have also become highly critical of milk additives, particularly growth hormones given to cows to boost their productivity, and now seek out organic and even raw milk straight from the teat.

“Given how passionately people have felt about milk in the past, the negative wave of sentiment in the late 20th century isn’t surprising,” Valenze said. “It’s not as essential—or magical—as people once thought it was, but it still carries associations and characteristics that prove it to be an integral part of the world we live in.”

For all she has learned about milk, Valenze herself doesn’t drink it. “I’m lactose sensitive,” she confessed.

Explore further: Record keeping can help South Dakota dairies improve production and reduce emissions

Related Stories

Supplement aids milk production

September 12, 2011

( -- Massey University research has led to the development of a calf supplement that can increase milk yield in dairy cows by up to 12 per cent.

Bodies for sale

December 22, 2010

For some people, intellectual property is about faster computers and better apps. But for Kara Swanson, a new professor at the Northeastern University School of Law, it’s about body products — literally.

Breast milk antibody fights HIV but needs boost

September 19, 2011

Breast milk antibody both neutralizes human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and kills HIV-infected cells, according to a paper in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Virology.

Obesity concerns result in milk ban

May 26, 2006

Whole milk is to be banned from British schools in the campaign against childhood obesity, allowing for the serving of only skimmed or semi-skimmed milk.

Recommended for you

University choice and achievement partly down to DNA

October 18, 2018

Research from King's College London has shown for the first time that genetics plays a significant role in whether young adults choose to go to university, which university they choose to attend and how well they do.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.