Dr. Elsie Widdowson was introduced to the idea of looking at the chemistry and physiology of foods while working on her doctorate and her thesis was based on research into the carbohydrate composition of apples.
Encouraged by her supervisor to study dietetics, she enrolled in King’s College where she met Robert McCance, a junior doctor researching the chemical effects of cooking. Widdowson found an error in his analysis for the fructose content of fruit and together they came to the conclusion that there were significant errors in standard nutritional tables. So the pair started producing their own data and expanded the foods analyzed to include cereals, dairy products, and items like drinks.
In 1940 the pair authored the book The Chemical Composition of Foods which was quickly accepted as the foremost nutrition publication and is the basis of most nutritional databases around the world. Now entitled McCance and Widdowson’s Composition of Foods this book helped usher in a new era of scientific investigation where human diets and nutrient intakes could be investigated in relation to disease risk.
With the outbreak of World War II the pair was asked by the British government to investigate the possible side effects of a strictly rationed diet. Placing themselves and other colleagues on a starvation diet of bread, cabbage, and potatoes for three months after which they visited the Lake District and performed physically difficult tasks they measured if the rations had given them enough energy to meet their needs. Their conclusion was that while people could exist on this bare minimum diet, calcium fortification of the bread would be beneficial leading to the requirement of bread being fortified with calcium, a practice that is still followed.
Widdowson and McCance were scientific partners for sixty years until his death in 1993. Completing other research on her own Widdowson studied malnourishment in Africa and the effects of poor nutrition on lifelong growth and development. She received many honors for her work including being named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and named a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Written by Angela Goad