You are here

Alan P. Henry, Freelance Reporter
2:35 am CST November 12, 2019

Vivian Hanson Meehan, a Highland Park resident widely recognized as the founding mother of the eating disorder treatment field in this country, was praised for her vision and tenacity during a memorial ceremony Saturday at the Community Christian Church in Lincolnshire. Meehan, RN, DSc, died Sept. 17, 2019 at age 94.

“She started a movement that literally transformed the lives of millions and millions of people,” her husband Christopher Athas said, “Literally, in 1976 the field did not exist and that is what Vivian started and developed. And she did it without claim.”

“Before many professionals and scientists she understood the seriousness of anorexia nervosa and that it wasn’t just a life choice for teenage girls,” said Dr. Stephen Wonderlich, co-director of the Sanford Eating Disorder and Weight Management Center, and one of many health professionals who reached out to the family to express their condolences.

“Young women who had bulimia and anorexia nervosa had their lives saved by Vivian,” said neurologist Dr. Neil Allen.

Meehan was a registered nurse at Highland Park Hospital in 1974 when her college-age daughter was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a life threatening eating disorder. Meehan reached out within the medical community for guidance and support and quickly found out there was little of either. 

According to speakers at the ceremony, she was told that “anorexia nervosa is so rare that there are probably no more than 200 cases in the United States — you are wasting your time.” Worse yet, institutionalization and force-feeding were still considered viable treatment options.

Meehan was having none of it, and placed a classified ad in a local paper describing her daughter’s symptoms and seeking information and options. In short order, she had responses from eight people in Highland Park also looking for answers and started a support group in her home. A national magazine picked up the story and she was soon bombarded by thousands of phone calls and letters. That is when she founded the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders (ANAD).

Early on, some medical professionals expressed skepticism. 

“When she started she had only a RN degree, and some professionals were saying she had no business dealing with that,” Athas said. 

But while she was “gentle and unassuming,” she was also “fiercely determined to help people, she had total dedication, and she stood her ground,” he said.

“She opened up her home and her heart and launched the first helpline and referral service in the nation” for people affected by eating disorders, said ANAD on its website. Under Meehan’s direction as president for 33 years, ANAD went on to establish hundreds of groups and special services across the nation, and today carries on her legacy by continuing to offer free support groups and a national helpline. In 2003, she told the Dear Abby advice column that ANAD had a referral list of more than 1,500 therapists and programs worldwide.

“It’s such a shame people have to go through their lives being only a part of what might have been,” Meehan said of the continuing need for support options in a 2015 interview.

The longtime Highland Park resident was a gentle person as well as a focused one, said those who knew her well. 

“You are a remarkable being with such a big, kind, heart,” said Norma Jean Wilkes, with whom she and two others co-authored “Applying New Attitudes and Directions” in 1984.

She was “such a kind, caring and loving person,” said Dawn Ries, who was Meehan’s office manager for 18 years.

In 1979, Meehan was honored at the White House by First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Soon thereafter, she witnessed the opening of an eating disorders unit at Highland Park hospital. 

In 1990, ANAD did a nationwide study of high school students that found 11 percent suffer from anorexia or bulimia. Later that year, she testified before Congress on the dangers of adolescent dieting and dangerous diet products. 

“We believe drugs play a significant role in adolescent dieting and in the development of adolescent eating disorders,” she said. “Many teenagers find it easy to obtain drugs to quell the appetite, to expel water, or to purge what they have eaten. These drugs are easily available over the counter and instructions on the packaging is often vague and misleading. We call for strict control over diet pills, particularly those containing PPA — phenylpropalonamine, as well as diuretic, laxatives and emetics.”

She further urged the adoption of a comprehensive public program to reeducate the public “to overcome our mistaken and dangerous fascination with thinness as an ultimate ideal and to focus upon the real values in life and health.” 

In 2002, Meehan received a Point of Light award from the volunteer network founded by President George H.W. Bush. 

“She led the fight to develop extensive education and prevention programs that have impacted the lives of millions of people. Today, there is a plethora of community based and national programs that she has instituted,” the award program read.

Meehan grew up in Sanish, North Dakota, the second of nine children to Norwegian immigrants. Her mother died when she was 2, she was placed in an orphanage, and then was raised in a foster home by Ole and Lisa Hanson and later graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in nursing. In the late 1940s she moved to Chicago and worked at what is now the University of Chicago Medical Center. She moved to Highland Park after divorcing her first husband, Willis Meehan.

Vivian Meehan is survived by her husband Christopher Athas; children Lisa, Thomas, and Richard Meehan; and granddaughters Kira, Tasha, Sarah, and Jessica Meehan.