Elsie Widdowson, Cambridge

By Alan Dronsfield

The presentation of an Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) National Chemical Landmark plaque took place on 1st December 2009 to mark the lifelong dedication and work of Dr Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000), a pioneer in nutrition science.

A graduate of Imperial College, she obtained a PhD in 1931 for research into the carbohydrate content of apples. In 1933 Dr Widdowson decided to spend some time in the King’s College kitchens to learn about large-scale catering, prior to undertaking formal study in dietetics. Whilst there she met Prof Robert McCrance who at the time was analysing plant foods for carbohydrates as part of his study of optimal diabetic diets. Their collaboration lasted 60 years and included the epoch-making publication “The Composition of Food” first published in 1940. The sixth edition of this text is still in print, 70 years later. Her researches informed the Government on aspects of wartime rationing, especially in connection with the addition of vitamins and mineral supplements to basic foodstuffs. For instance, she suggested that wartime bread should be enriched with calcium salts to compensate for the anticipated reduction of diary products in the diet. The calcium fortification of white flour used for breadmaking remains a legal requirement today. For the seven years prior to her death on 14th June 2000, she was the most highly honoured UK female scientist, having been appointed both CBE and Companion of Honour, the latter in 1993.

Elsie Widdowson spent most of her working life in Cambridge so it was highly appropriate that the Landmark ceremony took place at the laboratory named after her, at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit, Fulbourn, Cambridge. The Director of the Unit, Dr Ann Prentice, gave an in-depth account of Elsie’s life, and the Landmark plaque was presented to Dr Prentice by Professor David Phillips, at the time President-elect of the RSC.

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, August 2010.