Ryland Edwin Webb, professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Human Nutrition and Foods (HNF) from 1973 to 1982, passed away on Feb. 23, 2021.

During his final years with Virginia Tech, the department was housed in the College of Human Resources, and the exercise component was not added until 1996. Today, the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise is located in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Born to missionary parents in Angola, Africa, Webb spent the first 11 years of his life with his two brothers in the village of Bailundo, a place dear to his heart for the rest of his life. In 1930s Africa, families had to be both self-sufficient and hardy to survive because communication was limited to letter writing and the nearest hospital and school were three hours away over very rough roads. However, the family managed to provide a safe and comfortable environment that seemed far away and protected from the political and social unrest during that time. Eventually, the brothers had to return to the United States to continue their education. All three excelled at sports and schoolwork and became valedictorians of their respective graduating classes.

After graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1954 with his bachelor’s degree in animal science, Webb served in the Army for two years in Korea. After his commission was completed, he visited his parents in Bailundo for a final time; this was the last time he would set foot on African soil. Webb returned to the University of Illinois to obtain his doctoral degree in nutritional biochemistry and graduated in 1961. For the next two years, he held a research position with American Cyanamid in New York.

In 1963, Webb joined Virginia Tech’s Department of Biochemistry as an assistant professor where his research focused on the interactions of nutritional status and pesticides, and pesticide resistance and metabolism. Ten years later, he became head of HNF, succeeding S. Jewel Ritchey.

“I was pleased when Ryland agreed to follow me as head,” said Ritchey. “During his tenure, the department progressed in several areas, particularly in the number of graduate students and research endeavors; also, additional faculty were brought on board, while new and modified programs were instituted. Interestingly, we shared several commonalities during our careers. We had the same major professor while attending the University of Illinois, and in 1963, we both began working at Virginia Tech. Also, we both taught Food and People, the beginning course for HNF majors, and one that attracted students from several other disciplines.”

During Webb’s years as head, student enrollment grew rapidly, the exercise component was added, and the hospitality and tourism option expanded and developed into a separate department. While Webb thoroughly enjoyed his research, he particularly loved working with graduate students and teaching, especially when he taught Foods and People, one of the most popular classes campuswide in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Ryland was a ‘student-oriented’ department head,” said Janet Johnson, who retired from the department in 2002. “He knew every student by name and was often seen having informal chats with students moving between classes. He was very supportive of the faculty and encouraged our research activity, teaching, and promotion to administrative opportunities within the college and university. Ryland was a key player in moving HNF from an established department of excellence to a larger one of national prominence.”

Webb’s research eventually focused on applied nutrition programs. As the university coordinator of Haitian Programs from 1972 to 1982, he worked with the Haitian Bureau of Nutrition to prevent preschool malnutrition through innovative “Mothercraft Centers,” which used the concept of training mothers in simple nutritional practices. In conjunction with these centers, Webb taught fathers about nutritional education and agricultural management practices dealing with food production. Webb also traveled to the Philippines, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic to implement similar nutritional programs with the collaborative efforts of faculty in the departments of sociology, forestry, and horticulture. Their overarching goal was to help native populations learn to use what was readily available and teach sustainable agriculture practices.

In 1976, Webb was honored as a fellow with Purdue University’s Old Master’s Program. Created in 1950, the program, which is still ongoing, brought distinguished scholars together to share professional and personal experiences and inspire leadership for a lifetime. Those selected as Old Masters are exceptional individuals who have made significant contributions to their professional fields.

Webb contributed to over 80 refereed publications and was the major advisor of 30 graduate students in both biochemistry and human nutrition and foods. He was conferred professor emeritus by the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors in 1996 after retiring with 33 years of service.

Webb was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Wanda, and is survived by his children Stanley, Linda, and Susan; grandchildren Parker, Ellery, Rachel, Kevin, Megan, and Zach; and great-grandson Salem.

To honor Webb’s memory and love of food, the family suggests donations to your local food pantry.

Obituary

— Written by Sherri Songer