Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: Elsie Widdowson

Episode Summary

Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000) was a nutritionist who helped to ensure the health of the British people under the rations of World War II.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s tastemaker worked with food in a different kind of way -- on the chemical level! She dove deep into the science of nutrition and  helped ensure the health of her country in a critical time of need. We’re talking about Elsie Widdowson.

Elsie Widdowson was born on October 21, 1906, in Wallington, England.

Elsie’s parents encouraged her -- and her younger sister -- to pursue careers in science. So when the time came to pick her field, Elsie decided to study chemistry at Imperial College London. She earned a bachelors of science in 1928, making her  one of the first women graduates of the college. She then graduated with a chemistry PhD in 1931, and eventually earned another doctorate.

Elsie studied topics including the carbohydrate content of an apple and the metabolism of the kidneys. She then moved on to study nutrition and the chemical makeup of food at King’s College London. There, in the kitchen of the college hospital, she met Robert McCance. It was 1933, and Elsie was studying industrial cooking methods in pursuit of another diploma. Robert, then a junior doctor, was researching the chemical effects of cooking. Elsie pointed out an error in his method, and together they discovered flaws in the standard nutrition tables of the time.

That was the beginning of what would become a career-long partnership.

In 1938, Elsie and Robert moved positions together to the Department of Experimental Medicine in Cambridge. Their research combined chemistry, health, and nutrition. Together with a team, they studied the effect that salt and water deficiencies had on the body and differences in nutritional content before and after cooking food, among other topics. Elsie and Robert co-authored the 1940 book “The Chemical Composition of Foods,” which contains nutritional information about over 1,000 common foods in the UK. Their work is still the food data bible for nutritionists.

Then World War II broke out. Suddenly, Elsie and Robert’s analysis became critically important to the country at large.

 The war required heavy rationing that the government feared would affect the health of the country’s citizens. So Elsie, Robert, and their colleagues conducted an experiment on themselves over several months to determine the effects of eating only bread, cabbage, and potatoes. Ultimately, their work showed that this diet could sustain a person’s health when paired with calcium supplements. This and later research provided the foundation for government diet recommendations at the time.

Elsie and Robert worked at Cambridge for the majority of their careers. After the war, they provided consultation on rehabilitating victims of starvation and malnourishment in concentration camps. Elsie also studied childhood malnourishment in Africa in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Elsie worked at Cambridge until 1972 and earned many leadership roles in her field. She was president of the Nutrition Society, the Neonatal Society, and the British Nutrition Foundation. She was also made a Commander of the British Empire, a member of the Royal Society, and a Companion of Honour. In 1999, Cambridge founded the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory for human nutrition research.

Elsie lived near Cambridge for over half a century, even after the death of her longtime research partner in 1993. In the year 2000, she passed away from a stroke. She was 93 years old. 

Elsie Widdowson’s scientific contributions to her country prove that there are so many ways to make a difference in times of need. Today, her legacy lives on in Western nutritional guidelines.

Tune in tomorrow to hear about  our final Tastemaker, the founder of a renowned soul food restaurant.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!