Standing on the Shoulders of Giantesses: Elsie May Widdowson

ElsieThe second in our series of blogposts celebrating some of the influential scientists featured in Women in Biochemistry: 1945 –1975 features Elsie May Widdowson. Elsie, working with Dr Robert McCance, was responsible for overseeing the government-mandated addition of vitamins to food and war-time rationing in Britain during World War II.

Elsie was born in 1906 and raised in south-east London. As a schoolgirl, she had a great interest in zoology, but her chemistry mistress encouraged her to do a degree in chemistry instead. She attended Imperial College, as one of three girls in a class of 100. She finished her BSc exams in 2 years, and spent the remaining year before she was awarded her BSc in the biochemistry laboratory of Professor S.B. Schryver.

She spent her time separating amino acids, no small task in the era before chromatography. Near the end of the year, someone from the Plant Physiology department approached her about a job that was available. She got the job, and spent the next 3 years working with Helen Archbold (later Porter) on a project exploring the chemistry and physiology of apples. Elsie specially looked at the changes in carbohydrates from blossom through ripening and storage. This involved weekly trips to an apple orchard in Kent to pick samples at various stages of growth.

Elsie published her first paper in 1931 in the Biochemical Journal on the determination of reducing sugars in apples. She gained a great deal from working under Helen, but wanted experience in working in animals and humans, so when her grant ran out, she went to the Courtauld Institute at the Middlesex Hospital to work with Professor E.C. Dodds. Here she investigated urine and serum proteins in nephritis, publishing a paper which would later be referred to as ‘pioneering work on the subject’.

After working with Dodds, Elsie needed to find a job. Under his recommendation to explore dietetics, she enrolled in a postgraduate diploma course in dietetics at King’s College of Household and Social Science. It was here that she met Dr Robert McCance, who was doing work on composition of meat and fish, and the effects of cooking on them. He had also done some work on carbohydrates, and upon reading his paper on this, she noticed his figures seemed too low (based on her previous work with apples). Impressed by this, McCance offered Elsie a position, attaining an MRC grant for her, studying the composition of fruits, vegetables and nuts. During her year-long dietetics course, Elsie had the opportunity to work at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Bart’s). She noticed that the nutrient tables for patients at the hospitals were being based on the American tables, which contained values for raw foods, not cooked. She also noticed that the carbohydrate values were based on what was left after water, protein and fats were subtracted; leaving essentially, what we call ‘dietary fibre’ today. This spurred Elsie to believe that there needed to be British tables created. McCance agreed, and together they began writing The Chemical Composition of Foods, which was first published in 1940, containing about 15,000 values.

McCance was busy exploring salt deficiency in diabetic coma patients, and sometimes roped Elsie in to help. The procedure for this study was difficult, requiring subjects to eat a salt-free diet and measuring the sodium in their sweat. These studies were instrumental in helping doctors understand the importance of sodium, the principles of which, are still considered today in the treatment of patients with diabetic coma, heart disease and kidney disease. Later they were given beds in King’s College Hospital, and this led to their studies of iron excretion. This gave rise to the suggestion that iron in the body was not regulated by excretion, but by absorption. This theory was later proven to be true.

Elsie kept in touch with Margery Abrahams, with whom she worked at Bart’s, and together they wrote a book, Modern Dietary Treatment, which was published in 1937. In 1936, Elsie travelled to America to work with the scientists at the Department of Agriculture who had been responsible for publishing the food tables. A notable experience there, was when Elsie tried to (unsuccessfully) convince a senior scientist that the values should be based on studies, like her own, that were current, as opposed to the works of Atwater, which dated from 1900.

In 1938, Elsie went to Cambridge with McCance, where he had been offered a Readership in Medicine. Their work there included a study on the absorption and excretion of strontium by the body. They conducted this by injecting each other with doses of the substance. This happened to be slightly foolhardy, as ‘a slight accident’ resulted in them both suffering a pyrogen infection from bacterial contamination in one of the batches they injected! None the-less, they determined that the body rids itself of strontium slowly, and via the kidney, not the bowel. When World War II began, McCance and Elsie began studying rationing, again using themselves (and other people in the lab) as subjects. They gave themselves what was considered absurdly low rations, and completed feats of physical endurance to test them. It turned out that they were indeed fit and able. They concluded however, that the subjects were not getting enough calcium. This lead to another experiment, in which they and the other volunteers had a carefully measured diet and all excretions were measured and analysed as well. It was a cumbersome and sometimes embarrassing process, but they were able to determine that something in the wholemeal bread(which replaced white bread during rationing) interfered with the absorption of calcium. Their recommendations to add calcium to the flours used in bread was made law, and the practice is still with us today.

References
Ashwell, M. (2002) ‘Elsie May Widdowson, C.H. 21 October 1906 – 14 June
2000’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society vol. 48 [Online],
London, Royal Society Publishing. Available at http://rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/48/483.full.pdf (accessed 5 September
2014)

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