Elsie Widdowson: Britain’s nutritionist
I had the pleasure last year to celebrate with her friends and colleagues the life and work of an inspiring British scientist: Dr Elsie Widdowson. It seems only fitting that on Ada Lovelace Day I show my admiration for a brilliant female chemist.
She was a selfless and dedicated scientist who among her many accolades in 60 years of research co-wrote the pioneering text The Composition of Foods (still the leading resource in food science), was responsible for the first compulsory food additive for health (calcium in bread) and preserved the health of the country in difficult times, overseeing the rationing of food in Britain during and after World War II.
In December last year the Royal Society of Chemistry awarded Chemical Landmark status to the Elsie Widdowson laboratory at MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge. I attended the plaque unveiling, which followed a lovely talk by the Director of the facility Dr Ann Prentice, and had the chance to chat with people who knew and worked with Dr Widdowson (“oh please, call her Elsie”, I was berated). They all spoke of her passion for science, her warmth and her empathy.
Elsie was delighted to have the building named after her, and cut the first sod in 1999, but sadly passed away at the age of 93 before its completion in 2001. Her long life may have been down in part to her nutritional expertise, but is astounding considering her experimental prodcedures: she would always try experiments on herself before asking anyone else.
She said in her biography: “We did not believe that we should use human subjects in experiments that involved any pain hardship or danger, unless we had made the same experiments on ourselves.”
Elsie gained a degree in chemistry and PhD from Imperial College London in 1928, studying the carbohydrate content of apples for her thesis. When observing large-scale cooking in a hospital kitchen, she met a doctor studying cooked meat named Robert McCance. Their common interests led to an MRC research grant for both to work together, the first venture of a 60-year scientific partnership.
The pair shortly realised the need for a single authoratative source of composition data for food, so set about writing one in 1934. The first edition of “The Composition of Foods” was published in 1940 and is more commonly now known simply as “McCance & Widdowson”. Now in its sixth edition, the book is published by the RSC and endorsed by the Food Standards Agency.
As war began in Europe in 1939, McCance and Widdowson studied the effects of rationing food, with a view to determining the bare essentials for a healthy population. As ever they began with themselves, living on a meagre diet for three months then undertaking a 36-mile walk through the Lake District in 12 hours! The two deduced that calcium supplements (delivered in bread) would be important for the wartime dairy-restricted diet, and consequently they were made responsible by the Government for national wartime and post-war rationing. It’s often said that under their rationing Britain had the healthiest diet it has ever had.
After the war they worked in Germany for a few years, after which they were both elected Fellows of the Royal Society. Moving back to England they continued their studies on malnutrition. Elsie was appointed Head of Infant Nutrition Research at the Dunn Nutrition Laboratory, and after a brief spell of retirement moved to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge in the Department of Investigative Medicine.
Elsie was made President of the Nutrition Society, Neonate Society and the British Nutrition Foundation, awarded many other medals and awards, appointed CBE in 1977 and in 1993 made a Companion of Honour, a fitting recognition of a lifetime dedicated to science. The UK owes Elsie its continued health after devastating war, and her rigour and fairness of scientific method should be an aspiration of all scientists.