The Beginning

Boyd Orr and school milkThe Rowett Institute was founded in 1913 with the aim of furthering research in animal nutrition.

At the helm was John Boyd Orr, later to become Lord Boyd Orr, who moved from Glasgow to ‘the wilds of Aberdeenshire’ to become the Institute’s first director.

When he arrived, there was no Institute building and he started work in a basement laboratory at the University of Aberdeen in Marischal College.

At the same time he committed the £5,000 which was available to the building of a granite laboratory block at Craibstone, not far from the present site of the Rowett Institute.

At the breakout of the Great War, Orr left the Institute, but returned in 1919 with a staff of four to begin work in a laboratory facility. Orr continued to push for a properly equipped new research institute and finally the Government agreed to pay half the costs but stipulated that the other half was to be found from other sources.

The extra money was donated by Dr John Quiller Rowett, a businessman and director of a wine and spirits merchants in London. Rowett's donation allowed the purchase of 41 acres of land at Bucksburn for the Institute to be built on.

Rowett also contributed £10,000 towards the cost of the buildings. The money was donated with one very important stipulation from Rowett - "if any work done at the Institute on animal nutrition were found to have a bearing on human nutrition, the Institute would be allowed to follow up this work."

Change in Direction

Queen Mary planting treeThe Institute was formally opened in 1922 by Queen Mary with a tree planting ceremony.

Although Orr’s early research at the new Rowett Institute was initially concerned with the mineral content of pastures and the importance of vitamins and minerals in the diet of farm animals, Rowett’s words were soon to be realised and he quickly made major breakthroughs in human health.

Having served as a medical officer in the trenches during the First World War, he had seen first-hand the poor health and physique of many of the army conscripts.

In the late 1920s, Orr began to look at the relationship between poverty, food and optimal health.  His research changed our understanding of the relationship between diet and health – he was the first scientist to show that there was a link between poverty, poor diet and ill-health.

He led a study looking at the importance of milk in the diet where he examined the effect on the growth of children. Orr observed that those who grew best had milk in their diets.

This ultimately led to the policy of giving children free milk in schools. But Orr’s greatest contribution came in the late 1930s in the form of The Carnegie Survey, where he looked at the diet and health of over 1300 families across the UK. 

The survey data was in the process of being analysed at the outbreak of World War II and the results were used to inform the development of UK food rationing policy, which for the first time was based on a greater understanding of nutritional needs, with special measures to safeguard the health of mothers and children. 

So effective was this understanding of nutritional needs that the nation’s health was said to be generally better at the end of WWII than it was at the beginning.

Back to Basics

sheepThe advances in research continued throughout the post-war period when the Rowett led the way in improving the efficiency of animal production, establishing a global reputation for work in this area.

During this period, the Rowett was led first by David Cuthberton and subsequently by Kenneth Blaxter, respectively the second and third directors of the Rowett Institute.

The work of Kenneth Blaxter, in particular, had a major impact on practical rearing of farm animals, increasing both the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of livestock production.