Dr Elsie Widdowson, who grew up in Dulwich, was a pioneer in the field of nutrition. Together with Robert McCance, her scientific partner of over 60 years, she steered the government's wartime food rationing diet, since acknowledged as the healthiest Britons have ever had. She was involved in scientific research until her death aged 93 and the British Nutrition Foundation has said ‘there is no branch of nutrition science, past or present, that has not been influenced in some way by the results of her pioneering work’.
Elsie May Widdowson was born in 1906 in Wallington, Surrey. Her father, Thomas Henry (known as Harry), was from Grantham in Lincolnshire and the son of an engine fitter who became paralysed (possibly in a factory accident) when Harry was just five years old, which must have led to a precarious life for the family in those pre-Welfare State days. As an adult, Harry moved to Battersea, became a grocer's assistant, then co-owned a grocery business before owning his own stationery business. Elsie’s mother Rose Elphick, a dressmaker, was the daughter of a carpenter from Dorking who died when Rose was just 12, again leading to a precarious start in life. Elsie had one sister Eva, who was five years younger.
The family were staunch Plymouth Brethren and went to two or three meetings on Sundays, where Harry often spoke. They attended further meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays and often Fridays and Saturdays too. The girls wrote up notes from the meetings and they also did scripture study: both girls often quoted bible verses in later life. Elsie and Eva liked to be busy. Once homework was done, they would knit, sew, frame pictures, do raffia work, and set each other maths puzzles. They did not go to the theatre or cinema but were keen visitors to the Horniman Museum. They also helped with their father’s business, boxing up rubber bands and paper clips.
After WW1 the family lived in Melford Road in East Dulwich, with Rose’s mother. As Harry’s business prospered, he bought his first car, later teaching his daughters to drive. In 1924 they all moved to a bigger house in Overhill Road, where Harry’s mother joined them. Harry and Rose valued education and both girls were ferociously intelligent. They attended Sydenham County Grammar School for Girls (now Sydenham School) and won prizes and scholarships. Eva later gained a PhD in nuclear physics and then became a world-renowned authority on bees. Elsie studied chemistry at Imperial College, becoming one of only three women in 100 students in her year; ‘it was a man’s world’ she said. She took her BSc within two years but had to wait until 1928 before being awarded it, becoming one of Imperial’s first women graduates. She started work in the university’s department of plant physiology and once a fortnight took the train to Kent where she picked apples and measured their carbohydrate levels, research that earned her a PhD in 1931 and had far-reaching effects.
Widdowson then studied the biochemistry of animals and humans at Middlesex Hospital but could not secure a full-time post so did a postgraduate diploma in dietetics at King's College Hospital, studying how cooking affected food compositions. It was here that she met Robert McCance, a junior doctor researching the chemical effects of cooking for his work on diabetes. McCance was working in a new department set up by Robin Lawrence (see DS Journal Autumn 2016). Widdowson realised, from her research into apples, that his figures for carbohydrates in fruit were inaccurate and told him so. McCance obtained a grant for her to analyse his data and they worked together for the next 60 years, until McCance’s death. In 1936 the 29-year-old Widdowson sailed to the USA to tell them that they too were calculating nutritional values incorrectly. She was right and thus began a lifelong reciprocal affection between the food scientist and the American scientific community.
In 1938, McCance and Widdowson joined the Department of Experimental Medicine at Cambridge University. They often conducted experiments on themselves and investigated strontium, a trace element, by injecting themselves and measuring how much strontium they excreted. They started on a Monday and injected daily. All went well until the weekend when, excited by the results they were getting, they went into the lab on Saturday to continue. They were almost alone in the building when they began to suffer intense headaches and fever. Fortunately, someone passed the lab and raised the alarm. Despite their illness, which had been caused by crude purification techniques, Widdowson and McCance still collected the samples they needed and produced a ground-breaking paper.
This adventurous spirit showed itself in other ways too. In 1937 Elsie bought a car and had it shipped to Calais so the sisters could drive around Europe, a challenging undertaking when cars were more unreliable than they are now. In 1939, less than two months before war was declared, Elsie went on a walking holiday in the French Alps.
Widdowson and McCance analysed different foodstuffs and their effect on the human body and in 1940 published The Chemical Composition of Food, tables with over 15,000 separate values, comparing nutritional content before and after cooking (often using recipes from Elsie’s mother). Known as ‘McCance and Widdowson’ and ‘the dietician's bible’, this standard work forms the basis for modern nutritional thinking. Their work would become of national importance during World War Two when food imports were limited due to Uboat attacks on convoys. Widdowson and McCance, concerned for the effect on health, wanted to see how far food produced in Britain could meet the population’s needs. Again they became their own experimental subjects. In September 1939, with colleagues and relatives, they started a near-starvation diet of bread, cabbage and potatoes combined with rigorous exercise. Much of the food came from Dr Widdowson’s garden, including potatoes and fruit, often harvested while air raid sirens were going off.
After three months they went on a cycling trip to the Lake District in December to test their fitness and their research showed that good health could be supported by this restricted diet but they also realised that some foods would need to be fortified with vitamins and minerals. In particular they recommended calcium be added to bread, given that dairy foods would be so severely rationed and phytate in wholemeal flour interfered with calcium uptake. The addition of calcium was vociferously opposed but Widdowson and McCance’s research prevailed and their work became the basis of the wartime austerity diet. Later in the war Widdowson and McCance undertook a potentially hazardous trip to Ireland to speak to doctors and politicians, including the Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera. Ireland had seen an increase in rickets among children because, owing to a wheat shortage, wholemeal flour was being used for bread. Widdowson and McCance recommended a change in flour production and fortification with calcium, leading to a sharp decrease in cases.
In 1946 Widdowson and McCance had gone to Germany to consult on the rehabilitation of severely starved concentration camp victims. The Germans thought their hospital was going to be confiscated by these English visitors so they mocked up a ward in a museum to show them. Elsie was suspicious and went to go upstairs when Dorothy Rosenbaum, an Anglo-German doctor, called out ‘Here you can’t go up there!’. Elsie recognised her South London accent and the two got talking, with Elsie reassuring Rosenbaum that the research was legitimate. They became lifelong friends and worked together when Widdowson returned to study the effects of undernutrition in children in orphanages, a six month research project that ended up taking three years and where Elsie’s natural kindness and courtesy did much to mollify German reservations in what was a difficult post-war period.
.In 1968 Widdowson became head of the Infant Nutrition Research Division in Cambridge where her work led to revised standards for formula milk. Much of Widdowson and McCance’s work was ground-breaking and led to discoveries that changed our thinking about nutrition. In 1973 Widdowson ‘retired’ aged 66 but in fact continued researching until her second ‘retirement’ in 1988, aged 82. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society, president of the Nutrition Society, president of the Neonatal Society and president of the British Nutrition Foundation. Aged 79, she undertook a large research study for Washington Zoo.
In 1979 Elsie was awarded a CBE and was made a Companion of Honour in 1993. She was notoriously uninterested in clothes, nor would she ‘waste money’ on them so a friend took her to an upmarket second-hand clothes shop to get an outfit for her trip to Buckingham Palace; the speed of the shopping trip and the savings she made pleased Elsie. In 1998 the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory opened in Cambridge, much to her delight. Despite publishing over 600 papers and co-writing a standard of dietetics, she was said to be a very down-to-earth person, ‘without airs’. Once, after a long but perfectly accurate introduction at an American conference she said, ‘Well you can take all that with a pinch of salt’.
After the war, Elsie spent the rest of her life in Cambridge. She lived in Barrington and Orchard House, her thatched cottage beside the River Cam, was said to be ‘a haven of tranquillity’. There she enjoyed listening to Letter from America - Alastair Cooke was her ideal communicator. Her garden had a large apple orchard, a stream with fishing nets ready for any visiting children, cats, chickens and a vegetable garden. Colleague say their children saw her as a grandmotherly, Beatrix Potter-style figure. .
Dr Elsie Widdowson had a ‘remarkable capacity to think through the implications of results and ideas and to present them in unusually lucid prose’. Her partnership with McCance, so productive in so many innovative areas, was a symbiotic match of equals, though she was aware of the value of his support at a time when women in science were rare. It was said that he provided the breadth and she the depth; Elsie put it more scientifically: ‘he was the acid and I was the base’. She never married but treated her colleagues like family and was always supportive of their lives outside the lab. She left money to Imperial College for the Elsie Widdowson Fellowship which allows academic staff to concentrate on research after having children and to Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities to support students with disabilities. She lived her life by the following principles:
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.
She died in June 2000.
A blue plaque for Elsie Widdowson will be unveiled in Barrington on 27 June 2021.