Historical biographies

Elsie Widdowson, 1906-2000: Pioneer of bread nutrition

Elsie Widdowson was a trailblazer in the field of nutritional science.

With Robert McCance, her scientific partner of 60 years, Elsie was responsible for the first comprehensive Tables of Food Composition (which still bear their name), as well as the study of body composition, mineral metabolism, normal and retarded growth and the physiology of the newborn.

One of the first women graduates of Imperial College, Elsie did postgraduate work at the Department of Plant Physiology at Imperial College, developing methods for separating and measuring the fructose, glucose, sucrose, and hemicellulose of fruit.

Together with McCance, she was also the first to advocate for the fortification of food, specifically flour, with vitamins and minerals such as calcium. Their work became the basis of the wartime austerity diet promoted by the Minister of Food Lord Woolton.

Elsie became head of the Infant Nutrition Research Division at the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory in Cambridge in 1966 – and although she formally retired in 1972, she continued academic research in the Department of Investigative Medicine at Addenbrooke's Hospital.

She was president of the Nutrition Society from 1977 to 1980, president of the Neonatal Society from 1978 to 1981, and president of the British Nutrition Foundation from 1986 to 1996.

Much of her wartime research into bread was conducted at a bakery in Barrington, and in 2020 this was commemorated with a Blue Plaque on the former site.

Elsie Widdowson, 1906-2000: Pioneer of bread nutrition