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Tales from the Century: Elsie Widdowson and her eclectic research

Elsie injecting herself with solutions of calcium, magnesium and iron (Reproduced from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’, available from the British Nutrition Foundation)

Elsie injecting herself with solutions of calcium, magnesium and iron (Reproduced from the book ‘A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years’, available from the British Nutrition Foundation)

Nutrition researcher Elsie Widdowson is one of the most significant figures in the MRC’s history. Here Dr Gail Goldberg, a scientist in the Nutrition and Bone Health Research Group at MRC Human Nutrition Research (MRC HNR) in Cambridge, remembers the legendary researcher, her questioning nature and willingness to use herself — and her colleagues — as guinea pigs.

This year marks the MRC’s Centenary, but it’s also significant for me: it’s 30 years since I began my research career at the MRC Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge.

Nowadays, I imagine that anyone with an interest in nutrition research knows of Elsie Widdowson, but that isn’t always the case; and I can use myself as an example. Just a few days into my new job, I was asked to man the projector for the Dunn’s ‘tea talk’ seminar. In those days speakers used slides, and whoever was in charge of the projector lived in fear of it jamming, or slides being loaded in the wrong order, upside down or back to front.

As I fretted about the projector, a PhD student pointed out an elderly couple in the front row, settled with cups of tea and cakes, and asked me if I knew who they were. I hadn’t a clue, and didn’t want to admit that the names ‘McCance and Widdowson’ meant nothing to me. As a recent graduate, to me the stars of Cambridge were people like Max Perutz — I’d spent much of my final year learning about the structure of haemoglobin.

But I soon realised their scientific stature, and within a few years, I’d had the privilege of meeting Elsie many times including to discuss her work in the context of mine and help her to organise the 50th anniversary meeting of the Nutrition Society — for which she sent all speakers hand-written invitations. And for the past 10 years I have been reminded of her daily, working in a building that bears her name.

A varied career

Elsie Widdowson (Credit: MRC HNR)

Elsie Widdowson (Copyright: MRC HNR)

Elsie’s life spanned almost all of the first 100 years of the MRC: she was born in 1906 and died in 2000, having been immensely proud to cut the turf for the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, which was opened in 2001 and is home to MRC HNR. She worked for the MRC for much of her career, culminating in her appointment as Head of the Infant Nutrition Research Division at the Dunn Nutrition Laboratory from 1968 until 1973, when she ‘retired’ in the true tradition of all those unable to completely stop work. She often collaborated with doctor and researcher Robert McCance, who she met in 1933 and worked with until his death in 1993.

Her broad range of research interests meant that Elsie made pioneering contributions to nutrition research in diverse areas, from looking at the composition of specific foods to studying nutrition at a population level. Her interests included spending two years meticulously studying different combinations of flour and micronutrients to determine the most nutritious recipe for bread, measuring ‘everything in and everything out’ from her research subjects. And she didn’t just confine her studies to humans: she studied the milk of giant pandas and elephants in an attempt to discover why hand-reared young would often die, discovering how their milks differed from cow’s milk.

But Elsie is also known for her willingness to experiment on herself. Her studies into the ideal proportions of food for rationing in the Second World War, for example, were done in the days when self-experimentation by scientists and clinicians was common. She spent time with colleagues testing out the proposed rationed diets, putting herself and others through their paces in the hills of the Lake District to determine if they were sufficient.

Her self-experimentation wasn’t always safe. While studying strontium lactate, which is similar to calcium but was less well characterised at the time, Elsie and Robert injected themselves to see how much of it was later excreted. They became ill with headaches, pains and a fever due to bacterial contamination of the samples.

Elsie’s leadership in nutrition research was acknowledged with accolades, including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1976 and being appointed CBE in 1979. She was President of the British Nutrition Foundation for a decade from 1986.

Analysing potatoes: a notebook of Elsie's from 1934 (Credit: Wellcome Library)

Analysing potatoes: a notebook of Elsie’s from 1934 (Credit: Wellcome Library)

A continuing legacy

Elsie’s work is still relevant today. Scientists worldwide continue to reference her work; no literature search on a topic related to nutrition fails to bring up her citations. The mandatory addition of micronutrients to flour in the UK continues to this day, and is indeed the topic of a consultation launched earlier this month by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Here at MRC HNR, Elsie’s research continues to influence. Her 1947 MRC Special Report on children’s diets was the first national survey of its kind. We’ve followed in that tradition by running the National Diet and Nutrition Surveys since the 1980s, and the recent Diet and Nutrition Survey of Infants and Young Children, due to report later this year.

Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson produced the first UK food composition tables, The Composition of Foods, which was first published by the MRC in 1940. It’s now in its sixth edition and is often to be spotted on desks here, just one of the reminders of the legacy of her work.

Elsie also inspired and mentored generations of scientists throughout her career and into her retirement, passing on her approach to always question and challenge findings. One of her pieces of advice to young scientists was: “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.”

Gail Goldberg

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