Obituary - Professor Philip James

Obituary - Professor Philip James

Professor Philip James

One of the UK’s most influential nutrition scientists, who developed our understanding of how poor diets contribute to obesity and helped incoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair establish the Food Standards Agency, has died. Professor Philip James, former director of the Rowett Institute, leaves a rich legacy on the public health of the nation.

As one of the UK’s early campaigners on obesity, the Welsh-born scientist helped develop the Body Mass Index (BMI) and establish the criteria for obesity assessment, management and prevention for policy makers across the globe.

As well as being ahead of his time in campaigning for the long-term health of citizens he was quick to respond to crisis situations. He was asked by the UK government, to help with humanitarian aid during the war in Former Yugoslavia 1992-1996. He set up a specialised unit at the Rowett to help with, among other humanitarian developments, airlifting the correct amount and nutritional quality of food to the civilian population living in besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, thereby preventing starvation, disease and premature deaths. 

Prof Wendy Russell from the Rowett Institute who worked with James, said: “Thanks to his response to various crises such as the BSE crisis (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in Europe, he helped to put food safety and nutrition at the heart of government.”

Born in Snowdonia, both his parents were teachers. His father was a conscientious objector during WWI, ending up in Wormwood scrubs and Dartmoor prison, serving his time alongside Quakers, also conscientious objectors.  This played a part in the secondary school choice for Phil who was sent to a Quakers boarding school in Yorkshire.

Upon leaving school, he described his ‘accidental acceptance’ to study medicine at University College Medical School in London. After turning up on the wrong day because of an administrative error he was interviewed by three Nobel prize winners.

He later wrote: “They were intrigued that I had rewired a burnt-out Rolls Royce while other pupils created a small bus-like structure on the original chassis.” The rebuilt bus with the Rolls Royce engine later carried him and his fellow students around Europe, while his engineering work got him accepted into medical school.

During his medical training he became interested in nutrition and was approached by the Medical Research Council in 1965 to study in Jamaica, analysing malnutrition and stunting in children about which he said he ‘knew nothing’. Despite that, his development of treatments for children with severe malnutrition and diarrhoea have helped save the lives of millions of children globally.

After Jamaica, James had spells at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston and the MRC Gastroenterology Unit London before joining the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. During that time, he became interested in obesity, developing the Body Mass Index (BMI) and helping to understand why excess fat tissue contributes to metabolic diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes.

This interest brought him to the Medical Research Council’s Dunn Nutrition Unit at Cambridge where he set up a clinical unit by unofficially commandeering an unused hospital ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital which later became the location of multiple ground-breaking studies, particularly in obesity.

He was quick to realise the important role that the media played in getting nutrition on the political agenda. During the 1970s he narrated a BBC Horizon programme and worked on one of the first documentaries on healthier eating since WWII. The message had such an impact that supermarket shelves ran empty of the recommended healthier ingredients that were used in the meals for the featured 50 households on a local housing estate.

He worked on the use of D2O to measure basal metabolic rate and lobbied for the reduction of sugar, fat and salt in the diet. In this autobiographical paper he described how this got him into trouble with both with the sugar industry and the UK Civil Service.

Unfortunately, in 1982 his MRC funding was reduced. It was then that he was invited to become the new Director of the Rowett Institute, which is now part of the University of Aberdeen. While there, he scaled down his own medical research but expanded his governmental and NGO roles in the UK and globally. Under his leadership, the institute was central to the response to the BSE crisis (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) advising the European Commission on their response. Following the BSE crisis and an E.Coli outbreak, he was approached by the incoming government of Tony Blair to develop a new government organisation, the Food Standards Agency to protect the country’s food supply.

Between 1983 and 1986, James had begun to build the international reputation of the Institute with a worldwide nutritional analysis for the World Health Organization (WHO). The analysis provided recommended vegetable and fruit intakes although the United States was unhappy with his recommended maximum sugar intake which he speculated might have been due to pressure from the soft drinks industry.  Pressing to get obesity on to the political agenda,  he came up with the idea of establishing an International Obesity Task Force, a charity to lobby WHO and which was instrumental in their radical new obesity policy.

During his time at the Rowett he was a strong supporter of career development amongst early career researchers. Shocked at how few women were in roles at the Rowett in 1982 – only 2 out 80 independent scientists were female - he set about addressing the imbalance so that 50% of new staff recruits were women. Although, when he agreed to an onsite creche it came with the proviso that the female staff organise and run the creche themselves. His wife Jean played a central role in his career, helping him with various studies.  Popular with Rowett staff,  she hosted many international visitors to the Institute, even keeping a record of all meals served to guests for 17 years so that no visitor had the same meal twice!

Philip James is remembered fondly by staff at the Rowett Institute. As a young master’s student at the Rowett in 1993, Professor Alexandra Johnstone said “I recall his passion for research into human nutrition believing it would complement the Rowett’s existing animal nutrition research at the time. His pioneering work on obesity and international nutrition attracted many visitors from across the globe.

“I am particularly grateful for his foresight in developing a dedicated human nutrition research unit; still one of the few units in the UK that can conduct human intervention studies. My research into metabolism has been made possible thanks to this unit.”

Current director of the Rowett Institute, Prof Jules Griffin said:

“Prof. James has an immense legacy in nutrition science, impacting malnutrition, obesity and food safety. He was also instrumental in the role the Food Standards Agency plays in keeping our food safe and nutritious to eat. There are also numerous stories of his time within the Institute from the staff that worked alongside him. For example, he often paid unannounced visits to the labs to check people were working, with one student being surprised by the director at 5 am during when he appeared in the lab during her all-night experiment. Staff also recall, with warm affection, a leader who spoke to everyone in the same way regardless of their place in the hierarchy and who championed junior staff on to successful careers.”

“Our thoughts go to his family and loved ones at this difficult time.”

His wife Jean said: “It’s interesting to reflect on the things that Philip achieved during his life; that he survived to the age of 85 was something of a miracle.  He was diagnosed with a lung disease (bronchiectasis) when he was still a medical student - having suffered from pneumonia during the war when there were no antibiotics available - and told he might not live beyond his '40s

Prof James leaves his wife Jean, daughter Claire, son Mark and 4 grandchildren.

Born on 27 June,1938, Philip James died on 5 October, 2023