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John Boyd Orr

John Boyd Orr


John Boyd Orr’s work at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen in the 1940s brought the first applications of modern scientific methods to farming. The visible health benefits to children of his 1927 free school milk experiment led the government to apply it nationally. Orr’s work helped improve the nation’s diet and health during the food rationing of the Second World War. He worked with the UN to improve Third World food production, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

More About John Boyd Orr.

Some people of the postwar generation had the idea that John Boyd Orr invented food. This is not entirely true. People had had a bite now and then before he arrived. What he did do was exert a heavy influence on the world's attitude to food. An Ayrshireman, he was a big man to look at and big also in other ways. He graduated from Glasgow University and joined up at the outbreak of the First World War. One of the lucky survivors, he won the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross. After the war he resumed research into nutrition, and in 1929 founded the Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition at Aberdeen University. He was also a director of the Rowett Research Institute there. His study of the diet of ordinary British people won him a place on the War Cabinet's scientific committee on food policy, and formed the basis of the food-rationing policy during the Second World War.

It wasn't just food that fascinated him. Orr was also concerned about how much food the world could produce, and how many people could be fed adequately. He didn't have a lot of hope about solving that problem. In fact, when he became the first director of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organisation in 1945, the wonderfully optimistic postwar generation who saw the future as roses all the way thought he was a wet blanket.

He kept prophesying disaster. The world would have too many mouths and not enough food to put in them. Everyone, of course, thought this was absurd, More recent experiences, in places such as Ethiopia, almost suggest that Orr was not entirely wrong.

His quite heavy books included Minerals in Pasture and their Relation to Animal Nutrition, Food and People and The White Man's Dilemma. All of these predicted the terrors of famine that the world has had to face since his time. He was made a companion of honour in 1968, three years before his death. He had already been made Baron Boyd-Orr of Brechin in 1949, the year that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike some honours, these are not given lightly.