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.


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.”


“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.

Show Me That Smile


The following is the second in a series of guest posts by UNMC third-year medical student Eric Nagengast, who is taking a year off from med school to  serve with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School.

I have no need for an alarm clock in Guwahati.  Like the roosters on the farms of Nebraska, the crows here alert everyone to the first sign of daylight around 4:45 a.m. At 5 a.m. the drivers begin bleating their horns on the street below, and by 5:30 a.m. the elder men of Guwahati clear their lungs, throats and sinuses with an aggressive, hacking cough. After years of breathing the Indian air, I probably would have to do that too, but the sound is certain to end any hope of a few more minutes of sleep.

I get up and efficiently use the 60 seconds of hot water my shower allows me each morning. A long hot shower is one of the things I miss the most about home. After a quick breakfast of one of the twenty protein bars I brought with me, along with some local fruit, I am out the door and thrust into all that is India.


The streets of Guwahati.

India has a way of overwhelming all your senses all the time. The first thing I notice is the thick, polluted air. I will never get used to it as it’s my least favorite thing about Guwahati. The air is so polluted that some members of the team use an inhaler. Next is the noise. On my walk to the hospital, I am honked at by rikshaws, cars, buses, motorbikes and bicycles. In India it is custom to honk anytime you are approaching another vehicle or a pedestrian. Since the streets are crowded with both, the result is continuous honking. Of course, I see plenty of things that would be completely out of the ordinary back home like monkeys, massive amounts of garbage or a fight between stray dogs.


You can imagine why everyone in the Delhi airport double-and triple-checked my connecting flight. Why would an American want to travel to this poor, isolated part of India?

When I step into the ward, I am reminded why I am here. The most deserving patients in the world fill the large room full of 40 hospital beds and today they will receive care they have waited many years for. The operating room in the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Center is just awesome! I learn so much assisting the expert surgeons here. There is not a center in the world that does more cleft operations.


Nagengast assists a surgeon from the Democratic Republic of Congo who spent four months at the center learning cleft surgery. Before arriving he had never done a cleft operation. The surgeon, who goes by Desi, is now back in the Congo providing care for his people.

Yesterday’s patients are being discharged and today’s are undergoing preoperative assessment. I look for patients to interview for our quality of life study. Our goal is to determine how living with a cleft affects the quality of life for a person and his or her family. I interview a 14-year-old boy and his father. This boy has a cleft palate. His father makes $3 a day mining coal. For 14 years, this boy has lived with a defect in the roof of his mouth that leaves his nasal cavity open to his mouth. You can imagine the difficulties this has caused with speech and eating among other things.

The next patient is a 40-year-old woman with a cleft lip. This woman has lived 40 years without seeing a surgeon for something that would have been fixed at three months of age in the United States. At the center, I have seen patients as old as 65 with unrepaired clefts. I will say it again; these are the most deserving patients in the world.

boybefore boyafter

Patients without access to surgical care exist in many parts of the world. It is not just cleft lip and palate that they suffer from, but also obstructed labor, injuries, appendicitis, and on and on. Most of you reading this probably have had at least one operation, and if not, someone close to you has. What would life be like if you did not have access to safe surgery?

The greatest advancement in surgery in the coming decades will not be a new, high-tech invention. Instead, it will be finding a way to deliver surgical care to the people who need it most, and I hope to be a part of this discovery.

A dinner party with the Guwahati team. Pictured are members from the United States, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A dinner party with the Guwahati team. Pictured are members from the United States, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Taking a Year (of a Lifetime) Off

The following is a guest post by UNMC third-year medical student Eric Nagengast.

Eric Nagengast-small

For the past eight months, one of the hardest questions for me to answer has been, “Where do you live?”

In this time, I’ve spent two months in Rwanda, three months in Boston, one month in India and the rest of the time between Nebraska, Colombia and a few other countries.

Since I’m a medical student, people wonder how I’m able to spend so much time away from school. I’m able to travel because I took a leave of absence from medical school between my third and fourth years.

Yes, it may seem crazy, but I actually agreed to put an extra year between myself and the elusive M.D. because I am spending this year as a Paul Farmer Global Surgery Research Associate with the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change (PGSSC) at Harvard Medical School.

At PGSSC, we believe safe surgery is a right that all humans should have. Through research, advocacy and clinical assistance, PGSSC strives to bring safe surgery to the people of low- and middle-income countries.

Historically, surgical care has largely been left out of global health priorities. So our battle is not an easy one.  Our group is composed of physicians from the affiliated Harvard hospitals, fellows, residents, students and support staff from multiple schools, countries and continents.

 I am writing this post 30,000 feet above the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, four hours into a 14-hour flight from Newark to Delhi, the major leg of what is bound to be around a 30-hour trip to Guwahati, India.

In the last six months, I have grown accustomed to spending large chunks of time in airports and airplanes. One can actually get a lot done crammed between a couple of strangers for hours with no contact with the outside world (that is, of course, once one has seen every movie the in-flight entertainment has to offer).

Along with traveling, I also have grown accustomed to leaving the luxuries of the western world behind (such as hot water and easy access to food), and I am actually looking forward to my next few months abroad.


Nagengast with children at a refugee camp in Rwanda for those from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In India, my team and I are working on a number of research projects in joint partnership with Operation Smile, an international cleft-care organization. Through these projects, we hope to give a voice to the voiceless. We hope to show the great need there is for surgical care throughout the world, and we hope to show this need can be treated in a cost-effective and safe manner.

While I am in Guwahati, I will be lucky enough to scrub in to cleft surgery with some of the world’s greatest cleft surgeons. For a medical student with the goal of becoming a plastic surgeon, this experience is a dream come true.


Nagengast (left) assists Dr. Bill Magee on a cleft palate surgery at the Operation Smile Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Center in India. Dr. Magee is Operation Smile chief executive and co-founder.

could not share my story without thanking those who have supported me and helped make my experience possible. In particular, I would like to thank my family and everyone behind the Nellie House Craven Scholarship.

This year is undoubtedly the best year of my life. I have met the most amazing people, I have seen the most amazing things, and I now have a vision of what I would like to do with my future. Most importantly, I am the happiest I have ever been.

I will return to UNMC a better clinician, a better researcher and a better person. I hope my story inspires more UNMC students to consider taking less traditional paths toward their degrees.  


Stay tuned for my next post on a day in my life in Guwahati, India.