clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Profiles In Badassery: Philip E. Nelson

When I was at Purdue I lived with a food science major who now works out in Colorado for Dean Foods. It is likely that he had a class or two with today's subject of Profiles In Badasssery, a man who has taken his knowledge and has used it to help mankind while bringing honor to the Purdue campus. I give you Philip E. Nelson, a former winner of the World Food Prize, with a special thank you to reader Adam Johnson for the suggestion.

Early Life:

Philip E. Nelson was born in 1934 near Morristown, Indiana. A native Hoosier, he grew up on a farm and his interesting in agriculture was apparent at an early age. He grew up on a 500-acre that mostly grew tomatoes. He worked on the farm as a youth during planting and harvesting seasons, as well as in his family's tomato canning factory, Blue River Packing Company. By the time he was 15 he was introduced to Purdue's extension system after winning that organization's 4-H award for the 24 perfect tomatoes he had entered in competition at the Indiana State Fair. This earned him the title of "Tomato King"

Unlike some kings throughout history, Nelson did not rule his empire with an iron fist. Instead, he used it as a springboard to gain more knowledge and help his fellow man. After graduating high school he decided to attend Purdue, where he earned a bachelor of science in general agriculture in 1956. After finishing his degree he moved back home to become manager of his family's canning plant. This job didn't last long, as he closed the plant in the late 1950's because the focus of the tomato industry had moved west to California.

Career at Purdue:

It did not take long for Nelson to be drawn back to Purdue as a part-time instructor in Purdue's Horticulture Department in 1961 while he studied for his Ph.D. By 1967, he had earned the degree with his dissertation topic on the volatility of flavors in canned tomatoes. After completing his Ph.D he was offered a tenure-track position by Earl Butz, who would later serve as Secretary of Agriculture for two Presidents. This began a career for Nelson that lasted nearly 50 years in West Lafayette. By the time of his retirement the new Food Science Building on campus would be named after him.

Nelson did a ton of good for the world in his time, as the focus of his research was in finding ways to prevent food spoilage. He has traveled all over the world to trouble spots in order to study why food spoils and how to improve conditions for areas racked by hunger. This is why respect him and declare him a badass. Dr. Nelson's innovations have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of preserving food. They have been especially effective in developing countries, where much of the harvested crop is often lost due to spoilage. Up to half of the food supply is lost in these countries due to storage, packaging, and transport deficits. Many of these barriers have been torn down with Nelson's advances. He has taken his life's passion and turned it into something that can benefit those that cannot help themselves.

Here is an excerpt from his World Food Prize Biography:

Drawing on his years of experience, Dr. Nelson decided to explore ways to improve tomato processing methods. His hope was that, by being able to hold large quantities of the product to a date beyond harvest and then process it at intervals throughout the year into various products, he could help the tomato industry become less seasonal while maintaining and enhancing the nutritional content and flavor of the final product. Though he started with tomatoes, Dr. Nelson's work extended to many other foods, as well with his development of aseptic food processing and packaging.

Dr. Nelson's unique and revolutionary discoveries include:

  • Refining and perfecting the heat sterilization and cooling methods for preserving vegetable or fruit products;
  • Developing experimental 100 gallon, sterilized carbon steel tanks coated with an epoxy resin for holding the sterilized product at ambient temperature (later on, tanks ranging in size from 40,000 to over 1 million gallons were manufactured using Nelson's protocols);
  • Designing and constructing aseptic valves for the large containers, preventing microorganisms from moving through the valve stem into the sterile system;
  • Refining a system for smaller-scale, in-bag storage (1 gallon to 300 gallons), allowing processors to fill multilayer, inexpensive sterile flexible packaging material with aseptically processed products;
  • Perfecting a special fitment for the aseptic bags allowing sterile product to be introduced without re-contamination (this fitment was evaluated by Nelson as a membrane that is ruptured during the fill, and then resealed with a sterilized foil cap);
  • Increasing the capacity of bulk bag-in-box technology up to 3,000 gallon capacity for cost-effective shipping of processed food; and
  • Developing, with a Norwegian ship builder, the installation of aseptic bulk storage systems ranging in size from 1.8 million gallons to 8 million gallons into the hulls of ships for transport of orange juice across the globe.

In pursuing his goals, Nelson was able to accomplish what had not been done before: to successfully bring together several crucial aspects of the aseptic processing system - parts of which already existed and parts of which he discovered, designed, or modified during the course of his scientific research - that are used today in aseptic packaging installations across the globe.

Dr. Nelson's research and achievements in aseptic processing technology have benefited developing countries by providing an inexpensive packaging and shipping system for importing and exporting food stuffs. Humanitarian feeding programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by Land O'Lakes since 2000 have provided aseptically packaged milk and biscuit products as part of school nutritional programs in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Because the durable, sterile packaging ensures the delivery of safe and nutritious products to remote regions, food loss has been minimized. In 2005 and 2006, in the Philippines, less than 0.2% of the school-feeding products were lost.

Crowning achievement:

Nelson's biggest achievement was winning the World Food Prize in 2007 for his work in aseptic food storage. These same methods were used in food preservation and storage as part of the relief effort from the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Nelson has also helped build Purdue's Food Science department into one of the largest and finest in the world from 1983 to the present. He is greatly respected by his peers, as according to Charles Sizer, Vice President of Research, Universal Food and Beverage Company:

"Dr. Nelson's discoveries have become the predominant method for the preservation of perishable products in Third World countries, and thus was born the ‘Aseptic Revolution'." Will Scholle, President and CEO of Scholle Corporation, notes Nelson's "monumental impact in improving the way the world stores and transports its food supply."


2010 saw Professor Nelson retire from active teaching, but he still works in an advisory role as Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Purdue. I am proud to be associated with this badass of a Boilermaker because of how much good he has done for the world. Millions around the world battle hunger, but Dr. Nelson has seen this problem and done something positive to combat it. Not only that, he has helped countries learn techniques so they can help their own people. This is a great man who has taken what Purdue gave him and has given back.


Guy Woordroof Lecture (2008). Dept Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.

Guy Woordroof Lecture (2008). Dept Food Science and Technology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.

TEX Frasier Lecture (2008). American Society for Horticultual Science.

World Food Prize Laureate (2007). World Food Prize.

Carl Fellars Award (2005). Institute of Food Technologists.

Scholle Chair in Food Processing (2004). Purdue.

Diamond P (2003). John Purdue Club, Purdue University.

Fellow, International Academy of Food Science and Technology, 2003 (2003). .

National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economic Advisory Board (2003). NAREEE.

Sagamore of the Wabash (2003). State of Indiana.