MRC Human Nutrition Research

Skip to content

Dr Elsie Widdowson

Our building is named after Dr Elsie Widdowson, CH, CBE, FRS, a true pioneer of nutrition science. Some biographical information drawn together from a biography written by Dr Margaret Ashwell and an obituary by David Lister is given below.

The Early years

Elsie with daffs lower res

Born 21st October 1906, Dr Widdowson (Elsie) was raised in Dulwich by her parents, along with her younger sister Eva. She took her BSc examination after two years, but had to complete a further year in a Biochemistry laboratory before being awarded her degree in 1928. It was during her time in the laboratory, working on separating amino acids from plant and animal samples, that she was approached about a job in the Department of Plant Physiology directed by Prof. Helen Porter, looking at the chemistry and physiology of apples.

It was this work that encouraged Elsie in her life-long love of research. In, 1931 she produced her PhD thesis and her first paper. After her grant ran out she moved to the Courtauld Institute at The Middlesex Hospital to gain experience in human biochemistry and she produced a paper on kidney metabolism, which is still regarded as classic pioneering work.

The Great Partnership

During the introductory work for her dietetics diploma Elsie was sent to get some experience of large-scale cooking in the hospital kitchen. It was during this time that she became aware of a young doctor frequently bringing joints of meat in to be cooked.

Elsie became interested in Dr Robert McCance’s work and he invited her to his laboratory where he described his work on the composition of meat and fish, the effect of cooking and his previous studies on the carbohydrates in fruit. He obtained a grant from the Medical Research Council for them to work together and one of the greatest ever partnerships in nutrition began its long journey.

Elsie’s work in the diet kitchen of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital led to her realising that there was an urgent need for comprehensive composition tables of British foods, as the carbohydrate content in the American tables being used were calculated by difference and therefore also included what is now referred to as dietary fibre. Dr McCance knew of the problems with using these by difference values in diets for people with diabetes.

Therefore when Elsie proposed the idea of extending their analysis to cereals, dairy and miscellaneous items such as drinks, so as to produce a practical set of tables showing the composition of British foods, Robert McCance took no time at all in agreeing and in 1934 The chemical composition of foods was born, with the first edition being published in 1940. This is now in its sixth edition and is regarded as the foremost nutrition publication and is the basis of most nutritional databases around the world.

Such was its universal acceptance, that their names passed into the title McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods in 1940 forever linking them with the field of food composition. This fundamental publication was also the beginning of a new era in scientific investigation in which human diets and nutrient intakes could be investigated in relation to disease risk.

Further Research

McCance and Widdowson had a very hands-on approach to research, which saw Elsie developing Robert McCance’s curiosities into sound experimental studies. They had started back around 1934 by trying to persuade the body to excrete iron by injecting high does of the mineral. This original work led to them producing a paper on how the amount of iron in the body is regulated by absorption rather than by excretion and resulted in the then Dr. McCance being invited to join Cambridge University as a Reader in Medicine. The Medical Research Council agreed to Prof. McCance taking Elsie and their technician, Alec Haynes, with him so that there was little interruption to their joint work. Here they continued with their work on the food composition tables.

At the end of 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War, they decided to start experimenting on the rationing of food to investigate whether food produced solely in Britain could meet the needs and physical demands of the population. They studied the effects of a diet that some considered intolerable by living on it themselves for a number of months.

After 3 months they visited the Lake District and by performing tasks such as a 36mile walk with 7000ft of climbing in a 12hr period showed that their rations provided enough energy for the nations needs. It also led them to investigate the provision of calcium in this rationed diet. They concluded that in a rationed diet with extremely limited dairy, calcium fortification of bread would be beneficial and this led to the statutory fortification of bread with calcium, which is still continues today. Wholemeal bread however, which because of the phytic acid content was most in need of fortification, was not fortified in deference to the pure food enthusiasts who bitterly opposed fortification as soon as it was proposed.

After the war, Elsie and Robert travelled to Germany in 1946 to continue their pre-conflict work and the effect of the hostilities on the health and nutrition in communities affected by the conflict. This led to a 3-year stay in Germany and the research programmes that they set in motion during this period lasted for 40 years as well as resulting in the pair being elected as Fellows of the Royal Society. Back in England they carried out numerous studies looking at the impact of undernutrition work pigs, trace element metabolism, and in 1964, visiting Uganda to look at severe malnutrition in children and how they recovered with treatment.

Elsie’s solo work

Prior to moving to the Dunn Nutrition Laboratory as the Head of Infant Nutrition Research, Elsie had performed numerous research studies both in the UK and abroad. This included studies of the composition of the body, the differences between species and the changes in composition during development. This saw Elsie working with samples ranging from humans and guinea pigs to a grey seal. Work into the feeding of neonates and the consequences of disruptions to growth are among Elsie’s research legacies.

First retiring in 1973, Elsie moved to the Department of Investigative Medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge where she held laboratory accommodation, PhD students and an office, which she maintained until 1988 when she retired for the second time. In 1979 Elsie’s work was honoured with a well deserved CBE.

During Elsie’s retirement she took on numerous studies and responsibilities, including analysis of infant milks that were on sale in different European countries and in the late 1980′s the effect of nutrition on the growth of suckling black bears, harp and hooded seals collected by Olav Oftedal at Washington Zoo.

She became President of the Nutrition Society, Neonate Society and the British Nutrition Foundation as well as chairman and lead figure of numerous national and international committees.

Elsie maintained her enduring characteristic of a desire and interest in new areas that progressed human and especially infant nutrition until she passed away. She was delighted that the MRC Human Nutrition Research Laboratory was to be named after her and proudly presided over the cutting of the first sod in 1999, unfortunately Elsie passed away on 14th June 2000, just months before the building was completed and formally opened in January 2001.

Honours

elsie widdowson, mbe

Elsie received a number of honours during her lifetime. The pinnacle for her being in 1993 when she became a Companion of Honour, which it is stated that she was delighted about receiving, although she couldn’t understand why she had been selected for this honour. A humbling modesty, that Elsie was renowned for.

1928 BSc degree; University of London
1931 PhD; University of London
1948 DSc; University of London
1970 Sanderson-Wells Lecturer; University of London
1975 Honorary DSc; University of Manchester
1976 Fellow of the Royal Society
1977 to 1980 President; The Nutrition Society
1978 to 1981 President; The Neonatal Society
1979 Commander of the Order of the British Empire
1981 James Spence Medal; British Paediatric Association
1982 Second Bristol Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Nutrition Research Annual Lecturer; The British Nutrition Foundation
1983 First European Nutrition Award; Federation of European Nutrition Societies Boyd Orr Memorial Lecturer; The Nutrition Society
1984 Rank Prize Funds Prize for Nutrition
1985 EV McCollum International Lecturer in Nutrition and Award
1986 to 1996 President; The British Nutrition Foundation
1986 Atwater Lecturer and Award
1988 Nutricia International Award
1989 Muriel Bell Lecturer; Nutrition Society of New Zealand
1992 First Edna and Robert Langholz International Nutrition Award; American Dietetic Association Foundation
1993 Companion of Honour

References:

Ashwell M (ed.), (1993) McCance and Widdowson. A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years, 1933-1993. London: British Nutrition Foundation

Lister, D. 16 June 2000, Obituary: Elsie Widdowson, The Independent: London