Sir John Boyd Orr, 1st Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns, doctor, medical scientist, nutritionist, physiologist and Nobel Laureate, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, was born on the 23rd of September, 1880.
Sir John Boyd Orr was undoubtedly one of the great Scots of the last century. He was the pioneering father of modern, nutritional science and the first scientist to show that there was a link between poverty, poor diet and ill health. Orr, who was known as ‘Popeye’ to his family, had many outstanding qualities and a long list of outstanding achievements to his name. There was a touch of eccentricity about him and he was an intrepid character. An early story of him relates how, whilst some of his fellow students supported their studies by working down the mines at night, Orr bought a block of flats, with a £5 deposit on the mortgage, and sold it for a modest profit after he graduated. In addition to becoming a Nobel Laureate, he was a visionary researcher, a decorated First World War veteran, and a political idealist and activist, with a distinctive blend of scientific integrity, determination and pragmatism. Orr was knighted in 1932 and granted a Baronetcy in 1949, the same year he gained the Nobel Peace Prize for advocating a world food policy based on human needs rather than trade interests. His was only the second Nobel Prize that has been awarded to a Scot.
John Boyd Orr was the founding Director of the Rowett Institute for Research in Animal Nutrition, which is a renowned nutritional research unit near Aberdeen. When he turned up for the interview in the Granite City on the 1st of April, 1914, he must have thought it was a proper April Fools’ Joke when the stoney-faced Aberdonians told him that the ‘Institute’ consisted of nothing more substantial than an idea. He set about changing that and, after the First World War, raised substantial sums of money to build the reality. The first new building was dedicated by Queen Mary in 1922, followed by the Walter Reid Library in 1923/4, the thousand-acre John Duthie Webster Experimental Farm in 1925, and the accommodation wing, Strathcona House, in 1930. At the outbreak of the First World War, Orr enrolled as a medical officer with the Royal Army Medical Corps and served with the Sherwood Foresters. He was at the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendale two years later. His bravery in action led to him being awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross, which the principled Orr refused to wear; partly on the grounds that the really brave men were dead. Curiously, he ended up serving simultaneously in both the Army and the Royal Navy, because he resigned from the former and was loaned back by the latter to conduct research in military dietetics.
Between the two World Wars, Orr busied himself in nutritional research at the Rowatt, where amongst his many findings was the demonstration of the nutritional benefits young children could gain from drinking milk. That, of course, led to the introduction of free school milk. In 1936, Food, Health and Income report revealed the “appalling amount of malnutrition” amongst the UK population, regardless of economic status. That research came from a Carnegie sponsored dietary survey per income group that Orr made during 1935. Astonishingly, it showed that the cost of a diet fulfilling basic nutritional requirements was beyond the means of half the British population and that ten per cent of the population was undernourished. Great Britain wasn’t so great when so much of the population was so poor that it couldn't afford to buy enough food for a healthy diet. Orr’s research also became the basis for British food rationing during World War Two, a policy he helped to create as a member of Winston Churchill's Scientific Committee on Food Policy. Of course, propaganda dictates that the healthy condition of the nation was as a key factor in winning the war.
It was as Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, a post to which he was appointed in 1945, that John Boyd Orr achieved his widest recognition. At the tender age of sixty-five, he retired from Aberdeen’s Rowett Institute and took up no less than three new positions. He served a three-year term as Rector of Glasgow University and took a seat in the Commons, representing the Scottish Universities, in addition to his post with the United Nations. He was a great believer in the common good and the ideals of the United Nations and was actively associated with virtually every organisation that agitated for ‘world government’. In his autobiography, he wrote that “The most important question today is whether man has attained the wisdom to adjust the old systems to suit the new powers of science and to realise that we are now one world in which all nations will ultimately share the same fate.” Perhaps that shall turn out to have been prophetic.
Astute politician and propagandist that he was, the Nobel Peace Prize was his only tangible reward for his grandest idea. At a time of severe worldwide food shortages, he pointed out two key problems, namely that half of the world's population lacked enough food and that farmers dared not overproduce in case that caused a slump in food prices. His proposed solution for a World Food Board was based on ‘need’ rather than ‘trade concerns’ and demanded that the world’s governments could simply arrange to transfer surplus food to deprived countries. The system was intended to work like an interest free loan as once hunger and poverty were eliminated, the food loans would be repaid, sans interest. The proposal, which seems a little naïve in retrospect, was extraordinarily ambitious and was defeated at a 1946 meeting in Copenhagen. The international community, without the slightest smidgeon of irony or indeed shame, awarded Sir John Boyd Orr the Nobel Prize in consolation; for his efforts to eliminate world hunger.
John Boyd Orr was born in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, on the 23rd of September, 1880 and died ninety-one years later at his home near Edzell in Angus on the 25th of June, 1971. He was once described as “The practical farmer who extended the drystane dykes of his Grampian farm to encompass the earth.” His book, ‘The White Man's Dilemma’, which is published in many languages, is a statement of his far sighted views on the concept of a ‘World Food Board’ and ‘World Government’, ideals for which he campaigned to the end of his life. As the chairman of the Nobel Prize committee observed, “The purpose of [Orr’s] scientific work was to find ways of making men healthier and happier so as to secure peace; [Orr] believes that healthy and happy men have no need to resort to arms in order to expand and acquire living space.” Orr wrote that “hunger and want in the midst of plenty are a fatal flaw and a blot on our civilisation.” It is a crying shame that his ideas for bringing science to politics, naïve as they may have been, are still ideas ‘ahead of their time’.