Ann Williams-Heller was a well known and respected nutritionist and dietician of the 20th century. Much of her work has been lost to time, but with sites like newspapers.com, which require subscriptions to view vintage (and more often than not blurry) newspaper articles, we will recover much of her history, revealing a remarkable woman who was a pioneer in her field.
Starting with the hyphenation of her name. It is unknown exactly why she chose to hyphenate, her mother didn’t so that tells us that it wasn’t a family tradition. This leads us to assume she might have been a feminist icon. She, unlike many women of her time, kept her hyphenated name even in publishing.
Ann grew up in Vienna, Austria with her family. Ann learned to love cooking from seeing her mother cook. She claims her mother could “make a cake from sawdust” and somehow people would still enjoy it. She also says her mother would not allow her to cook out of fear that Anne might burn her beautiful hands. Williams-Heller got into food nutrition and cooking due to her husband’s dietary needs. After spending some time in Bulgaria and eating fatty foods, Walter, her husband, noticed that he had a harder time digesting foods. Ann used this to pursue a career in food nutrition, against the wants for her wealthy industrial family-in-law. This led her to attend the University of Vienna from 1933-1934, studying at the nutrition clinic & and pursue a degree in biochemistry and nutrition. She was there for 3 months and trained clinic chefs on nutrition.
Here she re-imagined their food nutrition to create lively, appetizing meals, which were enjoyed across the board. She also worked with the department of agriculture in Austria, where she created low cost, nutritional, meals. She was also a member of the board of directors for the London College of Dietetics. Her work earned her a government decoration. During Ann’s stay in England, she collected over 10,000 recipes and was even called, by a national news outlet, “(a person who has) studied from from more angles, and applied her knowledge more than any other food authority.” Suffice to say, Anne was not only well liked, but very well loved throughout the food community by the 1950s.
Williams-Heller first immigrated to America in the 1930s due to Hitler’s coming to power in Austria, and by that time she was already quite knowledgeable and was considered somewhat of an expert in her field of food nutrition. Ann was an impoverished immigrant of America, however, and when they arrived, she and her husband only had 10 marks each along with a valuable stamp collection and some jewelry. Her original name was Americanized from Wilhelm to Williams, she then became known as Mrs. Ann WIlliams-Heller. It is also important to note that Walter Heller, Ann’s husband, was Jewish. Ann later told the Tampa Bay Times that this unfortunate takeover by Hitler was an ironic source of freedom for her. She felt that if she had not been forced out of Vienna, her home country, she would have stayed there and not been able to make as large of an impact as she ended up making.
She took whatever opportunities arose for her in America, which included enrolling in Columbia University in 1938 where she gained recognition from her previously published nutrition books. She left the school in 1939.
Ann wrote many cookbooks, but the main point she made in her book A Busy Woman’s Cookbook was time, or the lack of it enjoyed by working women. She believed that cooking was laborious, and she understood why people might just choose to get takeout or go out for dinner. She doesn’t put people who choose to do so down in any way. She makes it clear in the preface of this cookbook that she can give them tools to better use their time in the kitchen. In this cookbook she lists dozens of easy meals for a household of two. Another idea that she talks about in the preface of this book is that time is constantly being worked against, she invites the cook to work with what little time they might have to spare. She also wrote multiple cookbooks on dieting. In an interview with Joan Barlow from the American Association of Industrial Nurses, Williams-Heller discourages misguided eating patterns in an effort for weight loss. She says that ultimately it is up to someone’s physician to tell them what a healthy weight looks like for their body. These ideas, and similar ones, were also written extensively about in her dieting books. All of Ann’s books feature a lengthy preface and a literal nutritional table to outline exactly how much of each nutrient was being provided and by which ingredient. In summation, Ann really cared about food consciousness, and health.
Ironically, for someone who had spent her publishing career writing books designed for healthy eating, Williams-Heller ended up working for a potato chip company as the director of consumer services. This led to her 1961 experimentation with using potato chips as a key ingredient in her cooking. She would use potato chips as “built in seasoning” and as a substitute for additional fat. This may have just been a way for her to make some much needed capital, but it could have been a valiant effort in expanding food health consciousness amongst consumers who may be more prone to over indulgence.
Ann’s Husband, Walter, died in 1966. After the death of her dearly loved husband, Ann went out on a quest for peace. She found it in a practice known as Kabbalah. This practice is based around the idea of the “Tree of Life”. Ann was taught by someone whom she has been sworn not to tell the name of, so she calls them “teacher”. She studied under her teacher until in 1974 she was ready to teach seminars on the concept. She tours around America teaching kabbalah to many women and even takes up her own pupil, Karen Goodrum. All the while, Ann was writing a book on the spirituality of Kabbalah, but she did not live to see it published. Her student Goodrum helped to finish the book through the publishing process after Ann’s passing in 1989. The book was released in 1990.
Barlow, Joan. “Weight Control.” American Association of Industrial Nurses Journal, May 1966.
Osgood, Nancy. “Food, Marriage, War- Inspiration for Career.” Tampa Bay Times, 18 Oct. 1962.
S, C F. “Mrs. Ann Williams Heller Is Doing Outstanding Work.” Mushroom News, Sept. 1959.
Surprise, Rena. “Chips Give Food ‘Built in Flavor’ , Says Nutrition Authority.” The Troy Record, 8 July 1961.
Williams- Heller, Ann. The Busy Woman’s Cookbook . Stephen Daye Press, 1951.
Williams-Heller, Ann. Kabbalah: Your Path to Inner Freedom. The Theosophical Publishing House, 1990.