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Widdowson, Elsie Maylocked

(1906–2000)
  • Roger Whitehead

Elsie May Widdowson (1906–2000)

by David Reed, 1990

Widdowson, Elsie May (1906–2000), nutritionist, was born on 21 October 1906 at The Ferns, Belmont Road, Wallington, Surrey, one of two daughters of Thomas Henry Widdowson, grocer's assistant, and his wife, Rose, née Elphick. Her younger sister was (Ethel) Eva Crane (1912–2007), founder of the International Bee Research Association. Both gained scholarships to the county secondary school, Sydenham, where the remarkably enlightened staff persuaded them to take up science for a career. Since biology was considered a rather ‘soft’ subject they were encouraged to opt for the more physical sciences. Elsie studied chemistry at Imperial College, London; she graduated BSc (1928) and PhD (1931), and her sister took mathematics and physics, also gaining a PhD degree. Their early love of biology persisted, however: the chemist became a world authority on nutritional physiology and the mathematical physicist on apiculture.

For her PhD Elsie Widdowson studied changes in the carbohydrate chemistry of the developing apple. It then became difficult for her to obtain a permanent job and she was advised that dietetics was a growing profession considered suitable for a woman. It was in 1933, during her postgraduate training in this new subject at King's College Hospital, that she met Robert McCance, a clinical scientist. The scientific partnership was consolidated when in 1938 McCance became reader in medicine at Cambridge and Widdowson joined his team there. The team's ability to define the relevant question and then provide a definitive answer led Widdowson to realize that if nutritional science was to study the effects of diet on physiology it was essential to have a detailed knowledge of the nutrient composition of food as consumed. Filling this fundamental knowledge gap made full use of Widdowson's chemical skills and in 1940 The Chemical Composition of Foods was published. As dietary habits changed it was updated in a series of editions and is now known as McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods. These food tables have become a factual basis for innumerable nutritional studies throughout the world.

Although very much devoted to fundamental physiology Widdowson and McCance were always prepared to apply their expertise to practical problems. Towards the end of 1939, at the request of the government, they began studies of the potential health consequences that might arise from future food rationing programmes, especially if animal and dairy product supplies had to be cut drastically. An important component was testing the physiological efficacy of the calcium and iron fortification of bread and flour products. These latter investigations built upon pioneering studies which Widdowson and McCance had carried out during the late 1930s and early 1940s on the absorption and excretion of dietary minerals.

In 1946, now permanent members of the Medical Research Council staff, they embarked upon a three-year investigation in war-torn Europe on the nutrition and health of communities, especially children, who had been the victims of chronic under-nutrition. Between 1950 and 1970 this experience prompted Widdowson to encourage prospective investigations of malnourished children in tropical Africa. These were supported by studies in Cambridge on rats and pigs. Widdowson and McCance were the first to demonstrate that the earlier the nutritional deprivation the greater and longer lasting the effect on growth and well-being. This finding inspired others during the 1980s and 1990s to investigate the long-term effects of early growth retardation on susceptibility to both non-communicable and infectious diseases. All acknowledge their indebtedness to Elsie Widdowson for the original idea and subsequent encouragement she generously gave.

Widdowson was president of the Nutrition Society between 1977 and 1980 and of the British Nutrition Foundation from 1986 to 1996. She was, however, equally respected within the field of neonatology and was president of the Neonatal Society from 1978 to 1981. She had begun work on the chemical composition of the human body before the Second World War but in the 1950s and 1960s this work became more focused on early human development. She and her colleagues carried out chemical analyses on whole foetal and newly born cadavers, studies unlikely to be repeated. The results placed our knowledge of micronutrient accretion during growth on a sounder scientific footing, allowing meaningful dietary recommendations to be made for this critical period. She also became involved in studies on human milk composition, resulting in 1980 in the revision of compositional regulations for breast milk substitutes in the UK.

Following her formal retirement from her Medical Research Council post in 1972 Widdowson pursued her academic interests within the department of investigative medicine at Cambridge. She never lost her curiosity about topics she had investigated at earlier stages during her life. She studied among other things the variability in composition of different mammalian milks. One of her popular party pieces was to talk about milk from mother seals that she was able to study during a visit to Labrador in 1984. She was never afraid of controversy and during the 1980s and 1990s provided strong support for disciplined research using laboratory animals if this was essential for an understanding of human health and disease. As biological research became more and more molecular in emphasis she stressed the continuing importance of whole-body physiology. She remained intrigued by the development of new analytical procedures such as the use of deuterium-labelled water for measuring the breast-milk intake of young babies and doubly labelled water for assessing the energy expenditure of persons unencumbered by the instrumentation traditionally used for this purpose in laboratory-based studies. She could never resist the opportunity to tease the investigator, however, that these marvels of modern science often achieved little more than she herself had done with primitive and less expensive equipment. These comments were always made in a generous spirit and her overriding concern remained the encouragement of the young. She always emphasized that her own career had been enabled by that chance meeting with McCance. Her faith was justified by the subsequent achievements of numerous colleagues she had nurtured throughout her long scientific life.

Elsie Widdowson died, unmarried, at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, on 14 June 2000 following a severe stroke while on holiday with her sister on the Dingle peninsula in Ireland. She was buried in Barrington churchyard, Cambridgeshire, on 23 June. A memorial service was held on 20 October 2000 at Great St Mary's Church in Cambridge. Although highly respected by all who knew her, and despite having become one of the most famous names in nutritional science, most of the formal trappings of recognition did not come until after Widdowson's retirement from the Medical Research Council. She was elected FRS in 1976, appointed CBE in 1979, and made CH in 1993 at the age of eighty-seven. One reason was the self-effacing nature of her character; another was that her scientific achievements had become inextricably entwined with those of her long-term collaborator Robert McCance. This partnership became so famous that it is inevitable that many have attempted to analyse the nature of their interdependence. McCance was undoubtedly a creative clinical scientist but his ideas needed to be translated into sound experimental studies and this is where Elsie Widdowson's abilities came early to the fore, especially where a sympathetic understanding of the management of junior collaborators was concerned. The fact is that neither could have achieved what they did without the other.

Sources

  • M. Ashwell, ed., McCance and Widdowson: a scientific partnership of 60 years, 1933–1993 (1993)
  • private information (2004) [Eva Crane]
  • D. Southgate, ‘A personal appreciation: Dr Elsie M. Widdowson’, British Journal of Nutrition, 85 (2001), 513–15
  • D. Lister, The Independent (16 June 2000), 6a–g
  • Daily Telegraph (22 June 2000)
  • The Times (27 June 2000)
  • A. Tucker, The Guardian (22 June 2000)
  • The Scotsman (19 July 2000)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • RS, MSS
  • Wellcome L., notebooks

Film

  • MRC Human Nutrition Research, Cambridge, ‘McCance and Widdowson: pioneers of nutritional science’, videotape made by Margaret Ashwell from historic photographs and sound recordings plus commentary 15 min.

Sound

  • Nutrition Society, London, compilation of Widdowson Tapes, volumes 1 and 2, prepared by Margaret Ashwell and available from the Nutrition Society, London

Likenesses

  • D. Reed, photograph, NPG; repro. in Southgate, ‘A personal appreciation’
  • D. Reed, bromide fibre print, 1990, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£1,246,411—net: probate, 28 Nov 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales