Food, Health and Income


John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) was a Scottish nutritional scientist, farmer and campaigner. He is a food hero because he engaged with the political world and used his scientific knowledge to improve global nutrition, which is why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

Born in Ayrshire he trained as a doctor at Glasgow University where he won a gold medal for his thesis. In 1913 he was appointed to oversee the development of a new research institute at Aberdeen University. This project was interrupted by the First World War during which he served in the Army as a doctor and was at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Returning to Aberdeen in 1919 he used his considerable financial and persuasive skills to develop the Rowett Institute which was carrying out research into animal nutrition.

He was asked by the British government to investigate the idea of a national food policy and the resulting report, Food, Health and Income, was published in 1937. It made uneasy reading for those in government. It mustered considerable research to demonstrate that many people in Britain were simply too poor to eat a nourishing diet. The report stated,
“… a diet completed adequate for health according to modern standards is reached only at an income level above that of 50% of the population.” John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income, MacMillian, p.44

During World War Two he advised Lord Woolton and helped shape the wartime diet for the better. In 1945 he retired as the Director of the Rowett Institute and began a new international career becoming as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He proposed a World Food Board to distribute food to where it was needed. It was an ambitious plan and when it failed Orr resigned in disappointment. It may have been a Utopian plan but you have to love him for trying.

ATeashop Revolutionary


Joseph Lyons. Image from http://www.kzwp.com.

Joseph Lyons (1847-1917) was a caterer who created a chain of well-loved teashops.

Born in London he was educated at the Borough Jewish school in the East End.  He had worked in various roles before being approached by some distance relatives to run a tea pavilion at the Newcastle Jubilee Exhibition in 1887.  The Gluckstein brothers and their business partner Barnett Salmon had noticed that the refreshments on offer at this type of big exhibition were poor.  They thought that they could do better and invited Joseph Lyons to front the business.

Catering at exhibitions proved so successful that a public company was founded, J. Lyons & Co, and, in 1894, the first Lyon’s teashop opened at 213 Piccadilly, London. By 1914 there were 180 Lyons teashops in city centres across England, more than any other company.

The teashops popularity was due to the fact that they served simple food in clean surroundings at affordable prices.  Joseph Lyon’s sense of showmanship also contributed to their success.  The teashops were beautifully decorated (red wallpaper, gas chandeliers and a fair amount of gold paint) and the waitresses (who became known as “nippies”) wore smart uniforms.

In 1909 the first of the larger Lyon’s Corner Houses appeared.  These were fancier establishments designed in an Art Deco style and included mini-food halls as well as several types of restaurant.

The last Lyons teashop closed in 1981.

A Proper Nutritionist


Harriette Chick at work in the 1930s. Image from the Wellcome Library.

Dr. Harriette Chick (1875 – 1977) was a nutritionist best known for her research on vitamins and rickets.

After qualifying as doctor of science in 1904 she applied to work at the Lister Institute .  Apparently, a few members of staff objected to her appointment on the grounds that she was a woman but, happily, the director, Charles Martin, appointed her anyway.  She worked there for over 50 years.

Harriette Chick’s main contribution was to the emerging science of nutrition.  In the wake of the First World War she led a research team to Vienna.  The War had resulted in food shortages and the population was severely malnourished.  Local doctors had noted an increase in rickets among children and similar bone deformities in adults.   At the time it was generally thought that rickets was an infectious disease. The research team, on the other hand, suspected that the problem was due to poor nutrition.

Working with the hospital staff Harriette’s team made changes to the patients’ diets and recorded the results.  The research demonstrated that rickets was caused by dietary deficiencies, specifically a lack of vitamin D.   The findings were published in 1923 as Studies of Rickets in Vienna.  Her notes from this time are held by the Wellcome Library.  They are scientific but they are also very human.  I especially like her recipe for “anchovy paste”.   It contains cod liver oil and marmite rather than anchovies but it would have contain plenty of vitamin D, which is what helped to fix the bendy bones of  the people in Vienna.

On her return to Britain Harriette became the head of a new department of nutrition at the Lister Institute.  She never married and lived to the ripe old age of 102.

Marmalade and Dundee Cake


Towards the end of the 18th century Janet Keiller (1757-1825?) founded a marmalade dynasty which also pioneered the Dundee cake.

Keiller’s stoneware pots have become quite collectable. Later ones were made of white glass. Image from http://www.thevintagewall.com.

The story goes that Janet’s husband brought a quantity of Seville oranges from a Spanish ship that was sheltering in Dundee harbour and she invented marmalade.  Like a lot of good stories it is partly true but has been somewhat embroidered.  Recipes for marmalades existed before Janet’s “invention”.  It would be more accurate to say that Janet, who ran a shop selling sweets and jams, adapted an existing recipe.  Her innovation was to include pieces of peel rather than pound the oranges into a pulp.  The invention story lived on as marketing hype.

Janet and her son James set up a small factory to make this new type of marmalade. When James died, 1839, the enterprise was taken over by his widow, Margaret, and their eldest son Alex.  Alex turned out to be a hard-headed businessman and the firm expanded under his guidance.  Alex’s younger brother William was sent to run a Keiller’s outpost in Guernsey, which helped the firm to reach markets beyond Scotland and gave them a tax break since, at the time, the Channel Island had no sugar duty.  In 1880 the company opened a factory on the north bank of the Thames, London close to Henry Tate’s sugar refinery.  Keiller’s products were exported all over the world.

There is another story that the Keiller’s were the first firm to produce Dundee cake on a commercial scale and they did so to keep the factory workers busy when Seville oranges were unavailable.  Recipes for this fruit cake decorated with blanched almonds came be found here.

Tin Can Pioneers


Bryan Donkin. The creative brain behind the first tin can factory.

The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago.  The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841).  He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales  (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention.   A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation.  Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.

First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars.  He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810.  Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent.   In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London.  The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering.   There is a photo of one of their tins here.  During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated.  These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.

An early tin can factory, possibly Donkin, Hall & Gamble. Image from http://www.colinslater.co.uk

Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener.  Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.

Agricultural Researchers


John Bennet Lawes. Image from Rothamsted Research.

There is currently bit of a hoo-ha going on at Rothamsted Research over genetically engineered wheat.  Regardless what you think of the rights and wrongs of genetic engineering we should recognize the two men who established this institution, Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901) and John Bennet Lawes (1814-1900).

Almost exactly 169 years ago, on 1st June 1843 Joseph, who was trained as an analytic chemist, started working on John’s agricultural estate at Rothamsted, Hertfordshire.  Together they set up a series of experiments to investigate plant and animal nutrition.  Their scientific partnership lasted for years.

Joseph Henry Gilbert. Image from Wikisource but originally published in 1894.

Their devotion to scientific research meant that rather than accepting standard practices on trust they designed experiments to provide evidence for what actually worked.  For instance they demonstrated that plants needed certain chemicals in the soil to grow well.  In the early days this was poorly understood and they had a long running argument with Justus Liebig (a prominent scientist of the day and inventor of the OXO cube) who thought that nitrogen-fixing legumes drew what they needed from the atmosphere.  After 20 years Justus agreed that Joseph and John were right.

John and Joseph probably would have approved of growing genetically modified wheat in fields to see what happened.  They were both advocates of artificial fertilizers, not because organic fertilizers didn’t work, but because they believed that in order to feed the growing population new methods were necessary.  Their turn of mind meant that they tended to opt for chemical solutions.  Looking back we know that artificial fertilizers didn’t instantly solve malnutrition in 19th century Britain.  Part of their legacy should be to encourage us to take a longer and wider view of the issues.

Electrical Trailblazer


Col. Crompton

Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845–1940) helped to popularize the use of electricity in the home.  He set up a firm that made electrical products including the world’s first electric toaster.

After an early career in the army and bit of time working for an engineering firm Col. Crompton set up his own company in Chelmsford, Essex.  By the 1880s Crompton & Company was producing a variety of electrical items, including dynamos, switch gears and arc lamps, many of which Col. Crompton had helped to design.  This was very new technology.  Early electrical schemes tended to be limited to lighting large public buildings and Crompton worked on a number of these, for example at Kings Cross Station.

Col. Crompton had the imagination to recognize that electricity could transform the domestic environment, but only if electricity could be supplied in a reliable and safe way.  In 1887 Crompton built a power station at Kensington Court, an up-market housing development in London.   As with many new technological developments there were a few early adopters but most people took a while to catch on and it was decades before electricity became standard in ordinary homes.   The delay wasn’t simply down to the lack of infrastructure or the cost of electrical goods.   There were also anxieties to overcome.  During the early 20th century Col. Crompton helped to remove many of these obstacles, for instance he worked closely with the Electrical Association of Women, a group that explained the benefits of electricity in the home.

As for his toaster, it was called the Eclipse and produced in 1893.  It doesn’t sound like it was the most successful product.  It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and the heating elements tended to break, but you have to admire Col. Crompton’s vision.  To find out more about the history of toasters go to the on-line toaster museum.

Cheerleader for the Agricultural Revolution


Thomas William Coke (1754-1842), also known as Coke of Norfolk and later the first Earl of Leicester, was an English politician, gentleman farmer and promoter of new agricultural methods.  The old history books describe him as one of the key pioneers of the Agricultural Revolution, which is probably exactly the kind of aggrandisement he would have approved of!

Thomas William Coke painted in 1809 by Thomas Weaver. UK Government Art Collection 2010, licensed under the Open Government Licence.

At the age of 22 he inherited his uncle’s estate Holkham in Norfolk, which included 54 farms.  The farms were not badly managed by the standards of the time but the Agricultural Revolution was underway and Thomas Coke was keen to adopt new methods, such as crop rotation and selective breeding.

Perhaps his most significant impact concerned sheep.  Thomas Coke introduced new types of grass for his sheep to graze on and by 1793 he claimed to have increased the number of sheep at Holkham from 700 to 2,400 [1].   He also experimented with the selective breeding of sheep and promoted the English Leicester, a new improved breed in the late 18th century which is now considered rare.  In order to encourage the spread of these new techniques he began hosting annual sheep shearing competitions.  These grew into large shindigs and drew influential people from some distance.

He qualifies as a food hero because he helped to popularise new agricultural methods.  I admire his gusto in being an early adopter and his enthusiasm to share his new found knowledge.

Worth a trip to his old Palladian gaff sometime I think – http://www.holkham.co.uk/

[1] Susanna Wade Martins, 2009, Coke of Norfolk (1754-1842), The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, p.110

Sugar Engineer


Norbert Rillieux. Image from, http://www.frenchcreoles.com.

I am not entirely sure whether anyone associated with the American sugar plantations during the 19th century could be described as a hero but Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) transformed the refining process and his story is surprising.

Norbert was born in New Orleans and, in the language of the time, he was a “quadroon”.  His father Vincent Rillieux, was a white plantation farmer and his mother, Constance Vivant, was of mixed race. Norbert, along with his siblings, was raised in some comfort thanks to his father’s wealth.  He attended private schools in Louisiana before being sent to Paris in the early 1820s to study engineering at the prestigious École Centrale. Norbert was evidently a rather good student and published papers on steam engines.  On returning to New Orleans and applied his engineering mind to sugar production.

In the early 19th century the way sugarcane juice was made into sugar involved a lot of boiling in large open pans.  It was labour intensive and dangerous. Norbert introduced a process that was cheaper, safer and produced a  whiter sugar crystal.  The Rillieux multiple-effect evaporating process was an important improvement in the way sugar was refined.

Norbert’s education and his family’s wealth allowed him to do things that would have been impossible for the vast majority of Black people living in Louisiana at the time (slavery was not abolished here until 1865)  but they did not insulate him entirely from racial prejudice.  During the 1850s race relations in Louisiana worsened. Norbert got fed up and moved to Paris, which is where he died at the age of 88.  He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery alongside his wife, Emily.

Heroine of Organic Farming


Lady Eve Balfour (1899-1990) was an organic pioneer who had a variety of potatoes names after her.

She wrote ,“The greatest social service of all is, or should be, the provision of the people’s food…If fresh food is necessary to health in man and beast, then that food must be provided not only from our own soil but as near as possible to the sources of consumption.” [1].

Evelyn Barbara Balfour was born into a rich and influential family.  Her father was the second Earl of Balfour (hence Lady Balfour) and her uncle was Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Prime Minster.  She was determined to farm from an early age and studied agriculture at the University of Reading.  In 1920 she bought a farm in Haughley Green, Suffolk with her sister, Mary.

In the late 1930s her interest in organic farming lead to her to establish the Haughley Experiment.  This was the first serious comparison between organic and non-organic farming techniques.  It involved creating three mini-farms using different methods and recording the result over a number of years.  The first mini-farm grew crops but had no animals.  The second and third plots combined arable crops with a herd of dairy cows, a flock of poultry and a few sheep. One of these mixed plots used chemicals and the other organic methods.

Evidence from this experiment together with information she gathered from travelling around the world went into her book, The Living Soil, which has become a classic in the organic movement.  It was first published in 1943 and encapsulates her ideas about the relationships between soil fertility and human health.  She was a campaigner too and, in 1946, co-founded the Soil Association.

Eve Balfour is a food heroine because she recognised the link between good food and health, had the guts to argue for what she thought was right and the sense to realise that the organic movement needed evidence to prove its case.

[1] E.B. Balfour, 1948, The Living Soil, Faber and Faber, London, p.164.