Elsie Widdowson – genius of nutrition

This week I’m back on my favourite theme of women in science, and my subject was responsible for the healthiest diet the British population ever had. Elsie May Widdowson was born in London in 1906 and gained a BSc in chemistry at Imperial College, London, in just two years. After graduating, she worked on a doctoral thesis on the chemistry of ripening and stored fruit, where she met Professor Robert McCance. She’d realised that some figures McCance had published were incorrect, and told him so. He was so impressed by her knowledge that he asked her to work with him and so began a scientific partnership lasting 60 years until McCance’s death in 1993.

Their work on tables showing the chemical composition of foodstuffs in the British diet was published in 1940. ‘The Composition of Food’ work, generally known as ‘McCance and Widdowson’, is a bible to anyone who has ever worked in food and nutrition, and formed the basis of modern nutritional thinking.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the pair headed the campaign to add vitamins and minerals in food, starting with the addition of calcium to bread. During the war they visited several sites in Nazi-occupied Europe to study the impact of poor wartime diets. They then experimented on themselves to work out the minimum dietary requirements of the nation, living on a diet based on bread, cabbage and potatoes. After three months, they went fell walking in the Lake District to test their physical fitness. They all turned out to be remarkably fit and the diet was promoted by the Ministry of Food.

This wasn’t the first time Widdowson and McCance had used themselves as guinea pigs. Before the war, they injected themselves with iron in an attempt to understand how the body regulates the amount or iron it carries. But sometimes their experiments didn’t go so well. When they injected themselves with strontium to investigate its excretion, they made themselves severely ill with intense headaches, fever and aching backs and limbs.

After the war, Elsie investigated the composition of human bodies and the way it changes during foetal development and after birth. Her studies moved on to the feeding of new born babies, during which she travelled to Canada to study the nutrition of baby seals and how bear cubs survive while their mothers hibernate, and studied the milk of giant pandas and elephants in an attempt to discover why hand-reared young often failed to thrive. During the 1970s, her work on the composition of breast milk was used in the design of infant formula.

From 1972 until her retirement in 1988, Elsie worked at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Little is recorded about her personal life apart from the fact that she never married, but throughout her working life, she was revered by her colleagues and her students, some of whom even called her “Mum.” She mentored scientists well into her retirement, advising them to always question their findings: “If your results don’t make physiological sense, think and think again! You may have made a mistake, in which case own up to it, or you may have made a discovery. Above all, treasure your exceptions. You will learn more from them than all the rest of your data.”

Even after retirement, now in her eighties, Elsie remained active. She was president of the British Nutrition Foundation from 1986 to 1996, and her many honours included being appointed CBE in 1979. She died aged 93 in June 2000. When asked about her own diet she said, “I eat butter, eggs and white bread, which some people think are bad for you but I do not.”