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.
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.
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.
Frederick (or Friedrich) Accum (1769-1838) was a German chemist who wrote about the adulteration of food.
Frederick trained as an apothecary in Germany before coming to London in 1793 and where threw himself into the scientific scene. He established himself as freelance researcher, lecturer and purveyor of chemical equipment. He worked on various projects, for example experiments with gas lighting, and, for a time, he was employed as Humphry Davy’s assistant.
In 1820 he published,A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, which explained that much of the food and drink being sold was not what it claimed to be. The book sold out very quickly. Some of the practices revealed were fraudulent, e.g. selling roasted peas and beans as coffee, while others were downright dangerous, e.g. the use of poisonous chemicals, such as lead, copper and mercury, to enhance the colour wine and sweets. As well as describing the problem and explaining how to test for adulterants, the brave (of foolhardy) Frederick published the names and addresses of traders convicted of adulteration. This made him some powerful enemies and, probably, lead to his public disgrace.
Shortly after the publication of his book Frederick was accused of vandalising books from Royal Institution’s library. This might have been a set up but he was found guilty and in 1821 he fled to Germany where he worked as a teacher.