Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000)

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The British chemist Elsie Widdowson was a pioneer of the scientific study of nutrition and one of the creators of the state-recommended diet during the Second World War.

Both Elsie and her sister Eva were encouraged by their parents to pursue their interests in science, and both chose scientific careers. Elsie trained as a chemist at Imperial College London. Her research was on diverse subjects ranging from the chemistry of ripening fruit to that of the kidney. Studying at King's College London, she began to analyse the chemical make-up of food and its effect on human health. Her book with Dr R A McCance The Composition of Foods, first published in 1940, became a standard work in the field of nutrition science.

Widdowson and McCance began a lifelong professional partnership. During the war they investigated ways to make sure that people received all the substances necessary to stay healthy, despite food shortages. They engaged in self-experimentation to test their recommendations. This research became the basis for the development of rationing policies during the Second World War.

After the war Widdowson continued to work in the field of nutrition, for instance studying the nutrition of newborn babies. She became President of the British Nutrition Foundation and received numerous honours such as election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1976 and the title of Companion of Honour in 1993.

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