Biography of Elsie Widdowson, British dietitian and nutritionist recognized worldwide for her research on nutrition and food composition.
Her contributions to the field of food and health are numerous and important.
She was one of the first women to graduate from Imperial College London, and one of the few who could enter the Royal Society.
Early years of this remarkable scientist
Elsie Widdowson was born on October 21, 1906, in Wellington, a city in the south-west of England.
Her father was a grocer’s assistant and lived with her family in Dutwich, south London.
Elsie Widdowson and her younger sister, Eva Crane, studied at Sydenham County School.
Observing the intelligence of both sisters, the teachers encouraged them to pursue scientific careers.
Studies of this extraordinary British dietitian
Eva had married James Crane. She was trained as a quantum mathematician, but changed her object of study to bees.
She spent several decades of her life studying them. Even traveling to more than 60 countries, many times in very precarious conditions.
Later, Elsie Widdowson pursued higher studies in Chemistry at Imperial College, London.
In order to get her bachelor’s degree, she decided to take a year in the biochemistry lab. There she worked separating amino acids from plant and animal samples.
She graduated as a Bachelor of Chemistry in 1928. She was 22 years old, and she was one of the first women to graduate from that institution.
She continued postgraduate studies in the Department of Plant Physiology, Imperial College. She did her thesis on the carbohydrate content of apples. In 1931, she obtained a doctorate in chemistry.
Elsie Widdowson’s research papers
Thanks to her work for the Department of Plant Physiology, led by Professor Helen Porter, she was able to begin her research on the physiology and chemistry of apples.
Brilliant Elsie Met McCance
Elsie Widdowson wanted to investigate further into the metabolism of the kidneys. She did so at the Institute of Biochemistry at Middlesex Hospital, under the tutelage of Professor Charles Dodds. At the end of her research she received a doctorate.
Admired for Elsie’s magnificent intellectual qualities, Professor Dodds suggested that she consider specializing in dietetics. He made her see that it was a field still to be developed and in which there were many possibilities for the future, since everything had to be done.
Elsie followed this sage advice and began a postgraduate course at King’s College, London.
When ishe began, nutrition did not yet exist as a subject of scientific study. Until then, chemistry, biochemistry, plant physiology and medicine were studied; but nothing regarding nutrition and dietetics.
The year was 1933, and Robert McCance was a doctor conducting research in the kitchens of the King College hospital, an intensive care medical center.
McCance did this as part of her clinical research on the treatment of diabetes. He wanted to find out how the cooking process affected the properties of the food consumed by those who suffered from this disease.
Elsie’s interest in the food that was given to the sick motivated her to conduct a study on the carbohydrate content of apples. Later, her study was extended to other foods. She identified bread, cabbage and potatoes as foods that contain all the nutrients most necessary for health.
Elsie Widdowson was attracted to McCance’s work and detected an error in the analysis of the fructose content of the fruit. They both realized that there were significant errors in the nutritional tables he was using and that they were in widespread use in the UK.
Researcher Elsie Widdowson teamed up with McCance
In 1938, McCance was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Cambridge. Elsie Widdowson joined his team in the Department of Experimental Medicine.
They became scientific partners and worked together for the next 60 years. They started working on the chemical composition of the human body and the nutritional value of the different flours used to make bread.
Throughout her research, Elsie made dozens of detailed tables, with the chemical composition of food. As a result of these studies, she managed to edit in 1940, “The chemical composition of food“; one of the pioneering publications when it comes to nutrition studies.
Elsie Widdowson also studied the impact of children’s diets on children’s growth. She studied the effects of salt and water deficiencies. Together with Robert McCance she drew up tables to compare the different nutritional contents of foods, before and after cooking.
Her work during World War II
Elsie Widdowson started her research on nutrition at the right time; because soon after, her knowledge was necessary to maintain the health of the British population during the hard years of the war.
Her work became a matter of national interest when World War II began, and England was gradually cut off from the continent. The British government was forced to implement a severe food restriction.
Elsie Widdowson and McCance and their colleagues decided to experience for themselves the effects of the diet they were going to propose for wartime rationing.
For several months they followed a diet of bread, cabbage and potatoes, with a very meager intake of meat, dairy products and calcium.
The results showed that health could be maintained on this very limited diet, if calcium supplements were added.
Her research laid the foundation for the wartime austerity diet, promoted by Britain’s Minister of Food.
Widdowson and McCance were the first advocates of mandatorily adding vitamins and minerals to foods. Following her directions, calcium was added to bread in the early 1940s.
They were also in charge of supervising the addition of vitamins to other foods most consumed in those years. They were also required to formulate the terms of the rationing of Great Britain, during World War II.
Widdowson and McCance were co-authors of the book “The Chemical Components of Food” first published in 1940 by the Council for Medical Research.
Another of her books, “McCance and Widdowson” became known as the dietician’s bible and formed the basis of modern nutritional thinking.
Elsie Widdowson after World War II
In early 1946, Elsie and Robert were called in to help the victims of the severe famine in the Nazi concentration camps recover; and in the territories that the Nazis had occupied during the war, especially the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark.
Elsie Widdowson traveled to Germany to study the impact on nutrition and health of communities affected by the conflict.
She stayed there for many years; in the 1960s she returned to England. During all these years she continued researching dietetics, nutrition and malnutrition.
She later visited Uganda to observe the impact of malnutrition during childhood. This led her to focus her efforts on studying malnutrition in Africa, especially in children, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
She reliably demonstrated that insufficient nutrition during childhood leads to health and growth problems that last throughout life.
She also studied the importance of the nutritional content of children’s diets, especially the vitamins and minerals contained in human milk. Their work led to the setting in 1980 of new standards for breast milk substitutes in the UK.
Later life and honors to this remarkable woman
Elsie Widdowson was appointed head of the “Child Nutrition Research Division” at Dunn’s Nutrition Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1966.
She retired in 1972. But, in 1973 she was assigned a laboratory and a team of young researchers, in the Research Department of Medicine, “Addenbrooke Hospital” in Cambridge. There she continued researching and working until 1988.
Elsie Widdowson was demanding when the team was preparing a scientific paper. She prepared her oral interventions meticulously, because she did not intend to impress the audience with her wisdom and knowledge, but rather that they would follow her and have a good understanding of the concepts she was presenting.
She always made sure that her younger colleagues received the recognition they deserved for their contributions.
If they had collaborated in the preparatory work, she took them with her to the meetings of the various committees in which she participated.
This contributed to Elsie Widdowson being a scientist respected by her peers and admired by those in her charge.
Her accomplishments earned her overwhelming public recognition. She received numerous honorary appointments:
- Member of the Royal Society, in 1976
- President of the Nutrition Society, from 1977 to 1980,
- Chaired the Society of Neonatology, from 1978 to 1981
- President of the British Nutrition Foundation from 1986 to 1996.
- Member of the Order of Companions of Honor, in 1993; She is awarded for outstanding achievement in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry, or religion.
- Member of the Imperial College, in 1994.
Elsie Widdowson’s last years
After her retirement, she collaborated in different investigations and was a member of numerous national and international committees.
She never married or had more family than her sister.
However, she enjoyed being an honorary grandmother to the grandchildren of her laboratory colleagues.
Elsie Widdowson lived in Barrington, near Cambridge. She always ate a simple diet, which included butter and eggs; She attributed her longevity to good genes: her father lived to be 96 and her mother to 107.
She passed away at the age of 83, on June 14, 2000. She died at Addenbrooke Hospital. She had suffered a stroke while on vacation with her sister in Ireland.
The British Nutrition Foundation published a book in 1993 to celebrate 60 years of its association with McCance and Widdowson.