“You can, if you have to, live on a very simple diet”, Elsie Widdowson said, and said it often. She worked out that bread, green vegetables, and potatoes contained all the nutrients for healthy survival.

Elsie was one of the most outstanding scientists of the twentieth century. Indeed, the fact that she and a handful of her female contemporaries were so influential, significantly advanced the cause of women in science. She was born in Dulwich, London in 1906 and moved to Orchard House in Barrington, Cambridgeshire in 1938. She was a pioneer in nutrition science, adored by all who knew her and much admired by all who have valued her work.

Elsie gained her BSc and PhD at Imperial College, London, in chemistry. In a pivotal moment in 1933, Elsie met Robert McCance in the kitchens of Kings College Hospital, London and was brave enough to tell him that his values for the sugars in apples were too low.

This inauspicious start led to a scientific partnership that was to last until McCance's death in 1993.  Among many other things, it helped shape wartime rationing and the standard loaf, revealed the damage poor childhood nutrition does to adult health, contributed to our understanding of mineral metabolism, and provided the core values for almost every nutritional database in use in the world today.

What started as Elsie’s idea during a family outing to Box Hill, Surrey in 1934, culminated in the “bible” now known as McCance and Widdowson’s Composition of Foods. This is a resource, regularly updated, which no nutrition department or food company can be without and it is an achievement in which British science has led the way.

(Photo: Elsie in Barrington in 1990s. With kind permission of Dr Margaret Ashwell OBE).

The pair moved to the Department of Experimental Medicine in Cambridge in 1938. During the first months of the war in 1939, they felt they must do something to further the war effort. Keen to prove the adequacy of potentially drastic wartime rations, they and a number of their colleagues ate bread and very little else. Then, to test their fitness following this bleak regime, they went on a rigorous course of cycling and mountain climbing in the Lake District. These studies also led to important changes in the formulation of the wartime National wheatmeal loaf, and ultimately the standard white loaf, in particular their fortification with calcium. Elsie was one example of Britain's wartime luck, like having other brainy people who found ways of breaking the enemy's military codes.

Elsie was extremely proud to be awarded her Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1976, closely followed by her CBE in 1979. She became one of Britain’s most famous scientists when she was made a Companion of Honour in 1993. Living in her thatched cottage on the River Cam with her cats for company, growing fruit (including apples, of course) and vegetables, she remained scientifically productive until her death, at the age of 93, in 2000.

Reporters inevitably asked her for the secret of her long and energetic life. Was it to do with diet? She said she had simply inherited good genes from her parents. Her father had lived to 96 and her mother to 107. As for her diet, she ate butter and eggs, but also ate plenty of vegetables and fruit, and drank lots of water.  And ate lots of bread, of course.

For more information:

Ashwell, M. ed., McCance and Widdowson: a scientific partnership of 60 years, 1933–1993 British Nutrition Foundation, 1993 

Click on this link to hear Great Lives with Helen Sharman and Dr Margaret Ashwell: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b092mbm2

Children might enjoy watching Absolute Genius about Elsie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFsIHG_7Ir4

PHOTO L-R: Penny Heath (CambridgePPF Blue Plaque Committee), Dr Margaret Ashwell OBE (friend and biographer), Jill Jones (Chair of Barrington Society), Kate Wootton (resident of the house where the plaque will be placed).

Thank you

We are grateful to Dr Margaret Ashwell OBE RNutr FafN (Elsie’s friend, colleague and biographer) for nominating Elsie Widdowson for a blue plaque, for helping to bring this to fruition and for drafting her biography.

The Blue Plaque to Elsie Widdowson has been financed by the Nutrition Society, the British Dietetic Association, the British Nutrition Foundation, and the Royal Society.

The commemorative blue plaque to Elsie is placed on the wall of the house adjoining the shop in Barrington. This used to be the village bakery which made the bread for all of Elsie’s studies. We are grateful to the owners for allowing the plaque to be installed.

An unveiling event took place on 27 June 2021 in Barrington village to commemorate Elsie and her work. We are grateful to those who helped to organise and support this event including the Barrington Society, Miss Helen Fernandes for hospitality at Barrington Hall, M M Wealth Management Cambridge, Stuart Barker of Barker Brothers Butchers in Great Shelford, Bread Source from Norwich for providing samples of a National Loaf and Barrington Parish Council.