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Scientist of the Week 5: Elsie Widdowson

This weeks #SOTW is Elsie Widdowson CBE CH FRS. The well-known British chemist and dietitian. Famous for her research on food composition tables and setting the limits of dietary intake of food, vitamins & minerals in World War 1.


Elsie was born in Surrey, United Kingdom. Her schooldays were spent in south east London where her favourite subject was Zoology. But she had a dedicated chemistry teacher how encouraged her to study chemistry at university instead. Elsie studied chemistry at Imperial College London and graduated in 1928. She was one of the first females to graduate with a Bachelors of Science from Imperial College (there were only 3 women in her year of a group of 100 students). Elsie took her final exam after only 2 years of studying however had to continue at university for another year before her degree was awarded. In her final year, she spent time in the biochemistry lab presided over by Prof. Sammy Schyver. Elsie received an offer for a PhD interview from the department of plant physiology who found out that she was looking for a job.  Elsie received a PhD in chemistry in 1931 for her thesis on the carbohydrate content of apples.  However she did not want to continue her research in plants she was more fascinated by animals and humans.

Key Research

After gaining her PhD Elsie was notified about dietetics which she took a post graduate diploma in and was the basis for her interest in nutrition.  During her work at the University of London she met Dr McCance, she was very intrigued by his research on the chemical effects of cooking and she west and spoke to him. Elsie notified him of several errors on the fructose content of fruit in the standard nutritional tables. From then on they became scientific partners and worked together for the 60 years.  

Salt content

Prof McCance with Elsie’s help wanted to study salt deficiency in humans. They persuaded healthy young men and women to eat a salt-free diet and to lie and sweat in a hot air bath for two hours a day for 14 days. The subjects lay on a red plastic sheet inside the warmed-up apparatus for two hours every afternoon, keeping their temperatures between 100 and 101 °F. The amount of salt that they lost was measured by washing both them and the sheet down with a jet of distilled water after each session, and then analyse the washings; their water loss was measured by their loss of weight. Then, when they were salt deficient, they had to submit to a variety of tests, in particular of their renal function.

This research helped us understand that maintaining fluid and chemical balance is a standard part of treatment of patients with diabetic coma, kidney disorder and heart attacks, and of those who experience episodes of severe vomiting and fever, as well as the treatment of patients after surgery.

Iron content and digestion

One female patient at Kings College Hospital in particular had polycythaemia rubra vera. This lady was iron deficient.  She was treated with acetyl phenyl hydrazine and by so doing broke down enough red blood cells to liberate 5 grams of iron in her body and Elsie and McCance were surprised to see that none of it was excreted. So the research pair injected iron into each other and found that iron was not excreted from the body at all. Therefore iron has to be regulated through the intestinal absorption only. Today we know that iron overdose can occur if too much iron is ingested.    

The strontium accident

To detect how strontium was digested and excreted from the body Elsie and McCance injected themselves with strontium, every day for 6 days, increasing the dose when they realised nothing happened by the 5th day they had used up the entire original batch and had to sterilize some more strontium lactate from the original solution. On the 6th day both started to feel ill. McCance and Widdowson had suffered a pyrogen reaction, which occurred much more commonly then than now because purification techniques were then cruder. They recovered quickly but they never gave themselves any more strontium injections. Although they fell ill and the experiment was detrimental to their health; Elsie and McCance continued their research and they found that strontium was excreted through the kidney not the bowel.


After the war, Elsie and McCance went to Germany in 1946 to continue their work and research the effect of the hostilities on the health and nutrition in communities affected by the conflict. They ended up staying 3 years in Germany; the research programmes that they commenced during this period lasted for 40 years this also resulted in the pair being elected as Fellows of the Royal Society. 

Solo Work

Elsie conducted a lot of research studies both in the UK and abroad. This included studies of the composition of the body, the differences between species and the changes in composition during development. Where she experienced working with samples ranging from humans and guinea pigs to a grey seal.


Elsie Widdowson CBE CH FRS. In 1976 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and the pinnacle of Elsie’s career was in 1993, when she became a Companion of Honour.