Life & times of Sir John Boyd Orr
Sir John Boyd Orr
John Boyd Orr -1880-1971 (later Sir John Boyd Orr) was the founding Director of the Rowett Institute. He was born in Ayrshire in 1880, the middle child of a family of seven. He was undoubtedly one of the great Scots of the last century. John Boyd Orr was the founding father of modern nutrition science and his achievements were outstanding. He was the first scientist to show that there was a link between poverty, poor diet and ill health. In 1936 he showed that at least one third of the UK population were so poor that they couldn't afford to buy sufficient food to provide a healthy diet.
Among his many research findings was the demonstration of the nutritional benefits in young children of drinking milk - a result which led to the introduction of free school milk. The landmark Carnegie Survey of Diet and Health in Pre-War Britain, which Boyd Orr masterminded, was used by the UK Government to help formulate the food ration during World War II.
When Boyd Orr retired from the Institute in 1945, he embarked on another career as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Among his many awards he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949, the same year as he was knighted. These pages follow Boyd Orr's career from his first degree at Glasgow University to his death at his home in Brechin in 1971.
A lifetime of acheivement
Before coming to Aberdeen Boyd Orr graduated in Arts from Glasgow university in 1903 and worked as a school teacher for three years. This was his first experience of the effect of poverty on the health of children.
Orr returned to Glasgow University and went on to qualify as a medical doctor, graduating MD in 1914 with a gold medal for his thesis which was on starvation, water and protein metabolism.
Aberdeen's Nutrition Institute - the first steps. In 1913 a Joint Committee of the University of Aberdeen and the North of Scotland College of Agriculture planned to establish an 'Institute of Nutrition' in Aberdeen, under E. P. Cathcart a physiologist at the University of Glasgow. Cathcart accepted another job, so the post was offered to his star pupil Boyd Orr. Orr arrived in Aberdeen on the 1st April 1914 but there was no Institute. He started work in a basement laboratory at the University of Aberdeen in Marischal College. At the same time he committed the £5000 which was available to the building of a granite laboratory block at Craibstone, not far from the present site of the Rowett Institute.
Orr served as a medical officer in the trenches and received the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order. He saw at first hand the poor health and physique of many of the army conscripts.
In the last year of the war Orr served with the Royal Navy and with Cathcart he studied the energy expenditure of the infantry recruit during training. Cartoon from the Tatler depicting the Army Eastern Command Scientific Group. Note Cathcart and Orr
Original Craibstone Building
Orr returned to Aberdeen after the war and was appointed Director in 1919. With a staff of four, research started in the Craibstone laboratory.
Only a small research unit was intended: "Neither the government departments concerned nor the local authorities had any idea of establishing an Institute." said Boyd Orr in his memoirs. But Orr had a vision of a properly equipped and funded Institute where research on nutrition in animals and man could be carried out.
The Government finally agreed to pay half the costs of a new institute, but stipulated that the other half was to be found from other sources.
Orr was fortunate to meet John Quiller Rowett, a wealthy man who was the Director of a wine and spirits merchants based in London.
In 1920 Rowett provided money to purchase 41 acres to provide a suitable site for the Institute to be built on. In addition, Rowett contributed £10,000 towards the cost of the buildings. It's easy to see why it was decided to name the Institute after him.
The money was given with one very important condition: Namely that "…if any work done at the Institute on animal nutrition was found to have a bearing on human nutrition, the Institute would be allowed to follow up this work." The Institute was formally opened in 1922 by Queen Mary with a tree planting ceremony.
Queen Mary planting the tree
The subsequent development of the Institute, the building of the Reid Library, main laboratory block and Strathcona House, were all down to the eloquence, determination and persistence of Boyd Orr as he persuaded our many benefactors to part with considerable sums of money.
Orr's early research at the new Rowett Institute was concerned with the mineral content of pastures and the importance of vitamins and minerals in the diet of farm animals.
Travelling in Kenya
From 1926 onwards, Orr travelled widely and visited the Middle East, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. He reported on the state of agriculture and agricultural research in the different countries. Two teams of workers went to Kenya to determine the mineral composition of pastures, and to compare the health and diet of the Kikuyu and Masai tribes, who live side-by-side, but have very different diets
Studies on the nutritive value of milk in the diet of children were undertaken. The results showed that addition of milk to the diet of schoolchildren resulted in a an increase in height and weight.
This subsequently led to legislation in Scotland to provide milk for children in Scottish schools and eventually England followed suit.
During the studies of milk for school children, a dietary survey of their families was carried out. Although not conclusive the results indicated that a large proportion of the diets were not sufficient to maintain optimum growth.
Introduction of school milk
Orr continued to highlight the poor state of health and nutrition of the British people and to advocate a national food policy linked to an agricultural policy and which took account of the importance of adequate nutrition to health.
Orr's early research at the new Rowett Institute was concerned with the mineral content of pastures and the importance of vitamins and minerals in the diet of farm animals. Orr was knighted in 1935 in recognition of his pioneering work on diet and health.
Food Health and Income
'Food Health and Income'
This desk study classified the UK population into six groups according to income and then estimated the adequacy of the diet consumed in each of the groups.
The study showed that more than one third of the population were too poor to purchase an adequate selection of foods to maintain health.
Carnegie Study So great was the interest in the 1936 study that the Carnegie Trust gave the Rowett a grant of £15,000 to carry out a more detailed study which was led by David Lubbock, a senior member of the Rowett staff.
More than a thousand families took part at 16 centres in England and Scotland during 1937-39. Over three thousand children were medically examined. Detailed information was gathered on the socioeconomic status of each household and diet.
Wartime food rationing
Analysis of data from the Carnegie survey was in progress at the Rowett when war broke out.
Lord Woolton, Minister for Food, used these results to develop his wartime food policy, which included special measures to safeguard the health of mothers and children.
The full report of the Carnegie survey would not be published until 1955.
At the outbreak of war, most of the Rowett staff enlisted in the forces, and the farm was geared to maximise food production.
"Feeding the people in war-time" was published by Orr and Lubbock.
This small book published in Feb. 1940, outlined ways of maximising food production at home, reducing non-essential food imports, diverting milk and vitamin-rich supplements to women, infants and growing children.
Feeding the people in war-time
In 1941 Orr became the first president of the newly-formed Nutrition Society
During the war, Orr became well known as a broadcaster and contributed to several publications which looked forward to post-war Britain
Despite the acute food shortages, Orr's research and Woolton's policies meant that the women and children of the poorer classes were healthier at the end of the war than at the beginning of it.
At the end of the war, Orr retired. The Rowett Institute by then was very run down, with few staff.
Catching the mood for greater international cooperation, President Roosevelt of the USA summoned the nations to a conference at Hot Springs to discuss food and agriculture. The British Government, by that time tiring of Orr's prickly independence, declined to send him as a delegate. The conference was a success and a final meeting was planned for 1945 in Quebec.
During the final years of the war Orr became well known as a broadcaster and contributed to several publications which looked forward to post-war Britain. He was involved in the Paul Rotha films 'World of plenty' (1943) and 'The world is rich'.
Elected as an independent MP for the Scottish Universities. Orr's maiden speech to the House of Commons on 12 June 1945 was on `National Health'.
Quebec Conference to establish the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This time the Government made a last minute decision to allow Orr to join the British delegation to the conference as an observer - he was not entitled to speak.
Appointment of the first director of the FAO Before the vote was taken, Orr was invited to speak and he made such an impact that his name was added to the list of candidates. With the British delegation voting against him, Orr was overwhelmingly elected as the first Director general of the FAO, a post he held until 1948.
Once in post, Orr immediately set-up a temporary food-sharing organisation to alleviate the predicted shortages of the winter of 1946-47.
Encouraged by this success, Orr decided to push for a powerful, international 'World Food Board'.
Unfortunately the pace at which Orr worked baffled and disturbed the British civil servants. He was not getting any younger, and he sensed that the opportunity for international cooperation was fading.
Meeting in Copenhagen
The World Food Plan was discussed at a meeting in Copenhagen and was supported by the USA delegation. Orr believed that he was on track to establishing a World Food Board.
The British Government were opposed to Orr's plans as they believed that the food plan was impractical and would have serious financial implications for the UK. At the Geneva conference, the USA delegation was persuaded to withdraw its support, and at the final vote Orr's plan was defeated.
With his plan defeated, and the old isolationism beginning to return to world affairs, Orr resigned from the FAO and returned to his farm in Angus a disappointed man.
Despite this defeat, and the number of subsequent attempts, Orr's plan is acknowledged as the closest to international cooperation in food sharing ever achieved.
Nobel prize award
1949 - Orr became a Freeman of the City of Aberdeen. Elevated to the peerage - created Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - his Nobel Prize Lecture was 'Science, Politics and Peace'. He donated the prize money to the National Peace Council and other similar organisations.
Orr took up many financially rewarding Directorships and was a member of 'The British Council for the Promotion of International Trade', which was considered to be a cover for 'fellow travellers' or communist sympathisers, but its aims were in line with Orr's views on world trade and peace.
He travelled widely in Europe and was an adviser on agricultural affairs to both the Indian and Pakistani governments. He was welcomed in both the USSR and China. Lady Orr was his constant companion as they met many international statesmen.
1953 - His book `The White Man's Dilemma', which is published in many languages is a statement of his views on the concept of a 'World Food Board' and World Government and he campaigned for these ideals to the end of his life.
1958 -Orr received honorary degrees from 12 universities in the UK and abroad, and was awarded many medals and marks of distinction.
Opening of the Blaxter
1970 - Orr's last public engagement - he opened a large extension to the Rowett's laboratory facilities.
Orr died on 25 June 1971 at his home in Brechin.