John Boyd Orr life and biography

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John Boyd Orr biography

Date of birth : 1880-09-23
Date of death : 1971-06-25
Birthplace : Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, Scotland
Nationality : Scottish
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-12-17
Credited as : scientist, Nutritionist, Nobel laureate

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John Boyd Orr was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his scientific research into nutrition and his work as the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He was the co-founder and the first President (1960–1971) of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

On 1 April 1914, Boyd Orr took charge of a new research institute in Aberdeen, a project of a joint committee for research into animal nutrition of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture and Aberdeen University. He had been offered the post on the recommendation of E.P. Cathcart, who had originally been offered the job, but had turned it down in favour of a chair in physiology in London.

The joint committee had allocated a budget of £5,000 for capital expenditure and £1,500 for annual running costs. Boyd Orr recognised immediately that these sums were inadequate. Using his experience in his father's business of drawing up plans and estimating costs, he submitted a budget of £50,000 for capital expenditure and £5,000 for annual running costs. Meanwhile, with the £5,000 he had already been allocated he specified a building, not of wood as had been envisaged by the committee, but of granite and designed so that it could serve as a wing of his proposed £50,000 Institute. He accepted the lowest tender of £5,030, and told the contractors to begin work immediately. The committee were not pleased, but had to accept the fait accompli. When war broke out the contractors were told to finish the walls and roof, but to do no more for the time being.

On the outbreak of the First World War he was given leave to join the British Army, and asked his former colleague Cathcart to help him obtain a medical commission in an infantry unit overseas. Cathcart thought he would be more useful at home, and his first commission was in a special civilian section of the R.A.M.C. dealing with sanitation. Several divisions of non-conscripted recruits were in training in emergency camps at home, some of them in very poor sanitary conditions. Boyd Orr was able to push through schemes for improvement in hygiene, preventing much sickness.

After 18 months he was posted as Medical Officer to an infantry unit, the 1st Sherwood Foresters. He spent much of his time in shell holes, patching up the many wounded. His courage under fire and devotion to duty were recognised by the award of a Military Cross after the Battle of the Somme, and of the Distinguished Service Order after Passchendaele. He also made arrangements for the battalion's diet to be supplemented by vegetables collected from local deserted gardens and fields. As a result, unlike other units, he did not need to send any of the men in his medical charge to hospital. He also prevented his men getting trench foot by personally ensuring they were fitted with boots a size larger than usual.

Worried that he was losing touch with medical and nutritional advances, he asked to be transferred to the navy, where he thought he would have more time available for reading and research. The army was reluctant to let him go, but agreed, since he was still a "civilian surgeon." He spent a busy three months in the naval hospital at Chatham, studying hard while practicing medicine in the wards, before being posted to HMS Furious. On board ship his medical duties were light, enabling him to do a great deal of reading. He was later recalled to work studying food requirements of the army.

When Boyd Orr returned to Aberdeen in early 1919, his plan for a larger Institute had still not been accepted. Indeed, even his plans for the annual maintenance grant had to be approved by the Professor of Agriculture in Cambridge, T.B. Wood. Despite gaining the latter's support, his expansion plans were at first rebuffed, although he succeeded in having the annual grant increased to £4,000.

In 1920 he was introduced to John Quiller Rowett, a businessman who seemed to have qualms of conscience over the large profits he had made during the war. Shortly afterwards, the government agreed to finance half the cost of Boyd Orr's plan, provided he could raise the other half elsewhere. Rowett agreed to provide £10,000 for the first year, £10,000 for the second year, and gave an additional £2,000 for the purchase of a farm, provided that, "if any work done at the Institute on animal nutrition was found to have a bearing on human nutrition, the Institute would be allowed to follow up this work", a condition the Treasury was willing to accept. By September 1922 the buildings were nearly completed, and the renamed Rowett Research Institute was opened shortly thereafter by Queen Mary.

Boyd Orr proved to be an effective fund-raiser from both government and private sources,expanding the experimental farm to around 1,000 acres (4.0 km2), building a well-endowed library, and expanding the buildings. He also built a centre for accommodating students and scientists attracted by the Institute's growing reputation, a reputation enhanced by Boyd Orr's many publications. His research output suffered from the time and energy he had to devote to fund-raising, and in later life he said, "I still look with bitter resentment at having to spend half my time in the humiliating job of hunting for money for the Institute."

Through the 1920s, his own research was devoted mainly to animal nutrition, his focus changed to human nutrition both as a researcher and an active lobbyist and propagandist for improving people's diets.

From 1929 to 1944, Boyd Orr was Consultant Director to the Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition, later the Commonwealth Bureau of Nutrition (part of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux), which was based at the Rowett Research Institute.

Orr, by now Rector of the University of Glasgow, was elected as an independent Member of Parliament (MP) for the Combined Scottish Universities in a by-election in April 1945, and kept his seat at the general election shortly after. He resigned in 1946.

After the Second World War, Boyd Orr resigned from the Rowett Institute, and took several posts, most notably at the FAO, where his comprehensive plans for improving food production and its equitable distribution failed to get the support of Britain and the US. He then resigned from the FAO and became director of a number of companies and proved a canny investor in the stock market, making a considerable personal fortune. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, he donated the entire financial award to organizations devoted to world peace and a united world government. (The American Friends Service Committee was one of his nominators.) He was elevated to the peerage in 1949 as Baron Boyd-Orr, of Brechin Mearn in the County of Angus.

In 1960 Boyd Orr was elected the first president of the World Academy of Art and Science, which was set up by eminent scientists of the day concerned about the potential misuse of scientific discoveries, most especially nuclear weapons.

The University of Glasgow has a building and the Boyd Orr Centre for Population and Ecosystem Health named after him, and the University's Hunterian Museum holds his Nobel medal. There is a street named after Boyd Orr in his home town of Kilmaurs in Ayrshire, and in Brechin, Angus.

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