Grad student's essay on won-ton woes wins Nicholas C. Mullins Award

Ian Mosby (MA '06), a York PhD history student, has won the Nicholas C. Mullins Award for his essay, titled “That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968–1980”.

“I was surprised and truly honoured….I'm very lucky to have had such a supportive group of friends, supervisors, and colleagues at York who helped and encouraged me to write this particular paper,” says Mosby.

Right: Ian Mosby accepts the Nicholas C. Mullin Award in Tokyo from Society for Social Studies of Science council member Nina Wakeford of the University of London, UK

His paper, published last year in the Social History of Medicine journal examines the “discovery” of the Chinese restaurant syndrome in 1968 and subsequent reactions by the medical community, scientists, public health authorities and the general public to dangers posed by the common food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) and by Chinese cooking more generally.

“I was originally attracted to this topic because I was curious as to why Chinese restaurants often had prominent 'No MSG' signs in their windows and on their menus even though MSG was a common ingredient in all kinds of processed foods ranging from potato chips to canned soup,” says Mosby.

“This curiosity quickly led me to a surprising number of scientific and medical studies from the 1960s and 1970s examining something called the Chinese restaurant syndrome. As it turned out, these studies ended up being a fascinating window into the interplay between ideas about race, food culture and industrial food technologies during the postwar period.”

In his paper, Mosby argues that "Chinese restaurant syndrome was, at its core, a product of a racialized discourse that framed much of the scientific, medical and popular discussion surrounding the condition. This particular debate brought to the surface a number of widely held assumptions about the strangely ‘exotic’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘excessive’ practices associated with Chinese cooking which, ultimately, meant that few of those studying the Chinese restaurant syndrome would question the ethnic origins of the condition.”

What happened is that Chinese restaurant syndrome became synonymous in medical and popular literature with Chinese cooking even though MSG was widely used by major American food manufacturers, he says.

And, as Mosby discovered, the debate over MSG and its possible short- and long-term health effects, which have been claimed to range from mild discomfort up to brain damage, continues today.

The Nicholas C. Mullins Award is handed out annually by the Society for Social Studies of Science for an outstanding piece of scholarship by a graduate student in the field of Science & Technology Studies. Mosby was presented with the award at the 2010 annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science at the University of Tokyo.