Aberdeen University Clinical Biochemistry Dept.


In 1913, John Boyd Orr was appointed as the director of a new institute for animal nutrition which had been set up by Aberdeen University. Originally the post had been offered to Edward Provan Cathcart, then Lecturer in Physiological Chemistry in Glasgow University. At first, Cathcart had accepted and had suggested that he take Boyd Orr, "Schoolmaster turned doctor", with him as they had been studying undernutrition and energy expenditure in infantry recruits. Then, when Cathcart was offered and accepted the Chair of Physiology in the London Hospital, he suggested that Boyd Orr be appointed in his place. Thus the future Lord Boyd Orr took up the directorship of what was to become the Rowett Research Institute. (ref: 1)

The Development Commissioners and the Scottish Education Department planned buildings costing 5000 and an annual expenditure of 1500 to cover all overheads including salaries. Boyd Orr had different views of what constituted an "Institute" and prepared a scheme with building costs ten times and running costs four times greater than these original estimates. His first building, a granite building which is part of the Craibstone Estate of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture, exceeded the original building budget. (ref: 105)

Initially, Boyd Orr set to work as sole scientist, assisted by William Gammie Ogg, and with one goat in the basement laboratories of Marischal College of the Aberdeen University. After a break in the developments due to World War I, from which Boyd Orr returned with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order, the Commissioners agreed to a building programme of 50 000. The government granted one pound for every pound raised from other sources and funds came from many sources.

John Quiller Rowett, a London business man who had financed Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica, provided the major sum of 12,000. The Institute was opened by Queen Mary in 1922. (ref: 105)

In the period between the wars, the Institute did not have a large permanent staff. By 1930 it had only 3 physiologists, 3 biochemists, a pathologist and 5 concerned with animal production. The staff was considerably augmented by honorary and visiting staff. (ref: 105)

In 1921, Boyd Orr met Walter Elliot, who had worked on rickets as a medical student under Noel Paton and EP Cathcart at Glasgow University, and with whom Boyd Orr discussed nutrition. Elliot was a Member of Parliament (first for North Lanark and then for Glasgow Kelvingrove) and, during the next parliamentary recess, he determined the calcium requirements of a pig by analysing its excreta. This unusual occupation for a rising Tory MP who was to become Minister of Agriculture, led to an interest in animal and human nutrition and a life-long friendship with Boyd Orr. Later, through the Empire Marketing Board, Elliot promoted research which led to the elimination of several diseases, which were due to mineral deficiencies, in Australia and New Zealand. (ref: 1)

In 1926 to 1927 Boyd Orr and David Lubbock showed in tests in seven cities in Scotland and Belfast that children given milk gained more in height and weight than did those given a biscuit of similar energy value. Legislation was later passed which allow local authorities to provide cheap or free milk in schools.

Concern for adequate nutrition of the poor and the healthy physical development of their children led to Boyd Orr's report "Food, Health and Income: A Report of a Survey of Adequacy of Diet in Relation to Income" (1936; London: Macmillan). This in turn led to a comprehensive study carried out by the Institute and financed by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, the results of which led to the formulation of the U.K. Food Policy of World War II. The work of the Institute was much reduced during World War II. The buildings became a training centre for the women's land army, the headquarters of the local battalion of the Gordon Highlanders and the officers' mess for the nearby RAF station. Boyd Orr (by then, Sir John) was concerned with the planning processes of the Ministry of Food and went on to become the first Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Later he received the Nobel Peace Prize and was created Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin. (ref: 1, 105)

In 1945, David Cuthbertson (later to become "Sir David"), who had been the first biochemist at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (1926 to 1934) prior to being appointed to Grieve Lecturer in Physiological Chemistry at Glasgow University, was appointed as Director of the Rowett Research Institute. He transformed the huts which had been used by the women's land army into a major world centre of research into animal nutrition. He continued studies on the metabolic consequences of trauma and much of the work of the Institute had direct relevance to human medicine. When he retired in 1965, he left behind over 200 staff (including over 80 graduate staff) of high calibre and a large and growing institute of international fame. He returned to Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1965 where he worked as a Senior Research Fellow until his second retirement in 1986. He died in 1989. (ref: 109, 105)

Sir Kenneth Blaxter was appointed as Director in 1965. He had the series of wooden huts which had appeared over the years replaced by permanent buildings and by 1979 there were over 320 staff. Blaxter was succeeded by Philip James in 1982. (ref: 105)

Clinical Biochemistry at Woolmanhill and Foresterhill

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Last updated September 2008