A Day in the Life at UNMC

The scientist and his chicken soup

Oh. So that’s what we’ve come to talk to him about.

Chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard exhaled, and leaned back in his chair so his voice would carry into the open office door across the hall: “How do I feel about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

After a knowing laugh, the answer: “It’s just been unbelievable,” Lillian said.

Dr. Rennard watches his wife, Barbara Rennard, the study’s first author, make her famous chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard is Stephen Rennard, M.D., Larson Professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at UNMC. Lillian is Lillian Richards, office associate I, internal medicine pulmonary, charged with wrangling Dr. Rennard, and sometimes (OK, often) also all this stuff about chicken soup.

And this chicken soup stuff never stops. It happened again, just the other day. This time it was Martha Stewart mentioning it in a syndicated “Ask Martha” column. Yes, Martha said. According to a “recent” University of Nebraska Medical Center study, chicken soup, while not a cure, could help alleviate symptoms of the common cold.

It never stops.

Go ahead, Google the words Rennard chicken soup and the search engine comes up with about 5,330 results in .21 seconds. None of them, as far as we can tell, are about any other Rennard or any other chicken or any other soup.

People love it that a scientist actually has studied whether chicken soup might be good for you, when you have a cold, just like your mom says.

Dr. Rennard, UNMC’s inaugural scientist laureate, is a world-renowned chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) researcher. Well, he’s world renowned for his COPD research within scientific circles. To the rest of us, thanks to a 1993 study that’s proven to have gone not viral, but retroviral, he’s world renowned as Mr. Chicken Soup.

“It’s been 20 years,” Dr. Rennard said.

“That’s the funny part,” came Lillian’s voice, from across the hall.

Barbara Rennard’s chicken soup comes from her grandmother’s recipe.

It’s like a musician, who has done great work for decades. But we, the public, can’t get that one, long-ago hit song out of our heads.

Right?

Well, no, Dr. Rennard said. It’s not like that at all. “It would be kind of like,” he said, and then paused for a good 10 seconds, trying to think of what it would be like.

“OK, so Charles Dodgson,” Dr. Rennard finally said. (Charles Dodgson? Pen name: Lewis Carroll.) “It’s kind of arrogant to compare yourself to somebody like that. But, he got to be really famous for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

“He was actually a serious mathematician,” Dr. Rennard said.

“But nobody cares about that other stuff.”

This all happened because Dr. Rennard had also always heard the folk wisdom, from cultures all over the world, that chicken soup helps colds, and he loves that kind of stuff – he studied folklore and mythology at Harvard. But he also is a scientist. He lives to find the truth of things, to figure things out.

And, his wife makes chicken soup. Wonderful chicken soup. Magical chicken soup. It is Barbara Rennard’s grandmother’s recipe, and if any chicken soup could cure colds, it would be this one.

TV stations across the country have shown Barbara Rennard making chicken soup, and a station in Cincinnati even uses some of the footage as “B-roll” on Mother’s Day. How do we know? A childhood friend called her: “Barbara! I just saw you on TV!”

Why not look into it?

What we did in the laboratory was actually very rigorous,” Dr. Rennard said. “Admittedly, we did it for the fun of it. Because we were amused by it like everybody else.”

And?

“What ourwork shows is that there are ingedients in common foodstuffs that might have anti-inflammatory actions. That old adage, that if it helps you, it might not be wrong.”

And so it is that Dr. Rennard, renowned COPD scientist, will be forever cited for his research on chicken soup.

Barbara Rennard and Dr. Rennard go over some of the research inspired by her chicken soup.

How does he feel about that? Well, when the subject is first broached, his body language did not scream enthusiasm. But, the longer Dr. Rennard talked, it was clear chicken soup is like that rascal uncle you can’t help but love. With every memory, he couldn’t help but smile. It’s been a fun ride. Besides, he may as well roll with it. It’s never going away.

Leaning: “Do you think people will finally stop calling about the chicken soup story, Lillian?”

“No,” Lillian said.

“I think when you finally retire we’ll give them your home phone number,” Dr. Rennard said.

Chicken soup has given Dr. Rennard three great career highlights, the kind few scientists are lucky to get:

• His wife Barbara, the study’s first author and head soup chef, always loved listening to Bob Edwards on National Public Radio (NPR). Guess who was interviewed by Edwards about chicken soup and managed to get his wife in on the call? “He talked to me for 10 minutes. He talked to her for the whole rest of the hour!” Dr. Rennard said. “And my wife’s friends were listening to NPR radio and said, ‘That’s Barbara Rennard!’ ”

• When Dr. Rennard’s hometown paper, the St. Louis Sun, was doing a chicken soup story for its Sunday magazine, it asked him for a photo. Well, it is his wife’s grandmother’s recipe, he said, and she was from St. Louis. How about a photo of her? It ended up being an old photo of Barbara Rennard’s grandmother cooking with her two young daughters, Barbara’s mother and aunt. Heartwarming stuff. “I got my mother-in-law’s picture in the newspaper,” Dr. Rennard said. A man can’t do much better than that.

• Dr. Rennard and chicken soup were a question in Trivial Pursuit. Every parent can relate: of all the work he has done, it was nice to finally have something his kids thought was pretty cool.

And so, Dr. Rennard will continue to work tirelessly on COPD (“It’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States and it’s not a household word,” he said). And he will continue to take phone calls about chicken soup.

Dr. Rennard adds carrots under his wife’s watchful eye.

Because those calls keep coming. Lillian used to try to keep track of a stack of news clippings, but it grew too much. This year alone Dr. Rennard and his chicken-soup study have been cited nationally by Martha Stewart, Men’s Fitness and the Huffington Post, among others.

It’s the media-exposure equivalent of a golden goose. It just keeps giving, year after year.

Few have done as much to put UNMC in the public consciousness as has Dr. Rennard’s research on his wife’s wonderful chicken soup. And, while he said he isn’t quite sure of all the logic behind why, Dr. Rennard does know that any time national media mentions UNMC, it is, as Martha herself might say, a good thing.

“It doesn’t show up in my annual productivity, things I’m responsible for,” he said.

What? How can that be? That’s a huge contribution to the university. How is all this not noted in his file?

“Lillian!” Dr. Rennard said. “So, Kalani thinks that we need to record in ADIS all the chicken soup interviews.”

“I quit,” Lillian said.

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2 thoughts on “The scientist and his chicken soup

  • As for Lewis Carroll (Lutvidge Dodgson): Queen Victoria was quite charmed by Alice in Wonderland and invited Dodgson to dedicate “his next book” to her (which of course was seen as a great honor). Victoria is reported to having been a bit puzzled when he followed that wish to the letter – his next book was on certain arcane aspects of calculus … As for the health effects of broth and such: Liebig, so famous German 19th century chemist devised “Liebig’s extract” which then was often given the sick and which was also based on cooked meat.