Food glorious food
Now that experts are back in fashion, particularly scientific ones, I have been researching some notable women scientists who have to date not appeared on my very unscientific horizon.
As we struggle in week 2 of the Great British Lockdown, the question of food and food supplies has been a focus of attention. There are many issues at play here; one is the fact that in the West we now expect every type of food from every part of the world to be on our shelves at virtually any time of the day. We are all about to experience a rude awakening from this, as supply lines within and beyond the UK are disrupted due to sickness and a significant drop in transport capabilities. Furthermore, thanks to the Brexit debacle, we now have even fewer people here who will be available to pick and pack the crops in our fields. Any EU citizen who could has headed back to their home country where their labour will now be highly appreciated.
It is with this perspective in mind that I was fascinated to learn about the life of Elsie Widdowson, a dietician and nutritionist. She was born in 1906 and grew up during the First World War in London. She studied Chemistry at Imperial College London and took the BSc examination after two years. As a graduate she worked with Helen Archbold (later Helen Porter, FRS) who steered her into one of the most remarkable scientific careers of the century. She took doctorates at Imperial College and at the Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976 and in 1993 a Companion of Honour.
Widdowson specialised in the scientific analysis of food, nutrition and the relationship between diet before and after birth and its effects on development. She entered a 60-year partnership with Professor RA McCance in 1933. Their joint recognition that contemporary nutritional tables were substantially wrong cemented a highly creative partnership, which revolutionised the way the world assessed nutritional values, how it investigated problems of dietary deficiencies and how mammalian development was perceived.
Famously, Widdowson became involved in nutritional problems faced in Britain during the Second World War, particularly experimenting with minimal diets. As the war progressed, the blockade on most food tightened. Essential foods such as butter, meat, cheese, fish, and eggs became very limited. Widdowson and McCance became concerned for the health effects such an extreme rationing system would cause.
Over long periods of self-deprivation McCance and Widdowson showed that health could be maintained on a diet so small that others believed starvation would be inevitable. Widdowson was also consulted on the careful dietary policy needed to remedy the effects of gross starvation suffered by Nazi concentration camp victims and later investigated the effects of different types of bread on the recovery rates of malnourished children in the general population of Germany.
Widdowson and McCance were co-authors of The Chemical Composition of Foods, first published in 1940. She went on to hold a series of highly prestigious posts: head of the Infant Nutrition Research Division at the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory in Cambridge, President of the Nutrition Society, President of the Neonatal Society, President of the British Nutrition Foundation.
One final fact – Elsie Widdowson lived to the ripe old age of 93; this was not based on a life of ready-made foods and takeaways. This gives me hope for what lies ahead.