Paul Saltman, an immigrant furniture-maker's son who became an acclaimed science professor, educational innovator and major force in establishing the world-class reputation of UC San Diego, died Friday at 71 of prostate cancer.
Besides winning major honors for his teaching and research on nutrition, the 6-foot-5 Saltman was known as a superb athlete and raconteur and was a charter member of the San Onofre Surfing Assn.
He had a zest for the rough-and-tumble of scientific debate and academic politics, and appeared on numerous radio and television programs to help the public appreciate science. He delighted in debunking purist notions about health, and he loved to sing the praises of Twinkies and red meat.
"You remember when you were a kid and the lady held up the four basic food groups?" Saltman said in a 1987 interview with The Times. "Well, what the hell is a pizza? It's all of the above."
When students at UC San Diego's Muir College named him "most valuable professor" in 1984, his trophy was a shellacked Twinkie balanced on a pedestal. He kept the trophy in a place of honor: near his surfboards.
UC President Richard Atkinson called Saltman "a Renaissance man whose integrity, scholarly interests and love of learning were reflected in all he did." UC San Diego Chancellor Robert C. Dynes said Saltman was "a role model for students and faculty alike."
Born in Los Angeles, Saltman attended public schools and was raised by an aunt after the death of his father, David Saltman, a Russian furniture-maker, in an automobile accident when Paul was 12. His mother, Sadye Solotoy, a native of Canada, had died when he was 3.
Inspired by a high school chemistry teacher, Saltman earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a doctorate in biochemistry from Caltech. He spent 14 years on the biochemistry faculty at USC before joining the fledgling UC San Diego campus in 1967.
There he helped develop curriculum and hire faculty members. He served as provost of Revelle College from 1967 to 1972 and vice chancellor for academic affairs from 1972 to 1980. In one of the few disappointments of his career, Saltman failed to become chancellor, which led him to return to teaching, explaining that he had no desire to be a "second banana."
The antithesis of the ivory tower academic, Saltman expanded his role as a teacher to include the public at large. He did a half-hour series called "Patterns of Life" for National Educational Television and a series for PBS.
He wrote the first of the Courses by Newspapers sequence, "America and the Future of Man," for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As an interview subject, Saltman displayed enormous patience while explaining difficult scientific concepts to often science-averse journalists.
His research concerned the chemistry, biochemistry and nutritional role of trace metals such as iron, copper, zinc and manganese. His discoveries allowed for improvements in dietary and supplement strategies to prevent anemia, enhance physical performance and decrease the chance of heart disease.
He was among the authors of an early study calling for women to drink more milk to boost their calcium intake and reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
"Women are saying, 'Milk is beneath my dignity. I'll do Diet Coke,' " he complained.
Saltman believed that much of what passes for dietary advice is bogus and dangerous. He contended that the career of basketball star Bill Walton was shortened by his dedication to vegetarianism, which Saltman said had left the athlete with brittle bones.
Saltman once gave a lecture to the Beef Council convention titled "Stop Being Chicken About Beef." "I will not lie about a piece of meat," he said.
As a scientist, he was willing to concede that not all the mysteries of life can be explained in a laboratory. He declined to criticize New Age guru Deepak Chopra, a fellow La Jolla resident.
"He's articulating a belief system offering inner strength and peace. That's not science; it's metaphysics," Saltman said. "But as my Russian grandmother used to say, 'If you need it, you should have it.' "
In June, UC San Diego established the Paul D. Saltman Chair in Science Education. His textbook, the "UCSD Nutrition Book," continues to be a popular guide to the science of nutrition.
Saltman is survived by his wife of 50 years, Barbara; their two sons, David and Joshua; and five grandchildren. A private service will be held. The family has requested that donations be made to the Saltman-endowed chair fund at the UCSD Foundation.