The Scottish medical scientist John Boyd Orr, 1st Baron of Brechin (1880-1971), pioneered the science of human nutrition and developed new correlations between health, food, and poverty. He was the first director general of the Food and Agricultural Organization.
Born in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, on Sept. 23, 1880, to a family of Covenanters, John Boyd Orr overcame the pressures of poverty in his youth by relentless work and the pursuit of greatly varied intellectual aspirations, mainly at Glasgow University. After taking his master's degree in preparation for the ministry, he turned first to science and medicine, finishing a medical degree with the prix d'honneur of the medical faculty, and then to research in metabolic diseases, for which he earned a doctoral degree.
Orr's major moral and scientific concern, deepened by close observations of life in Glasgow's slums, was the medical meaning of poverty and ignorance, notably in respect to malnutrition and preventable diseases among schoolchildren in the working population. Convinced of the need for modern research facilities in nutrition, he was instrumental, between 1906 and 1914, in establishing the Rowett Institute. World War I drew him into service as a frontline doctor with the army and the navy. He earned renown for developing a diet that greatly reduced the incidence of disease in his battalion. After the war he resumed the directorate of the Rowett Institute and extended its researches to agricultural and dietary problems in the colonies and dominions, parts of continental Europe, and the Jewish settlements of Palestine.
In 1931 Orr floated the journal Nutrition Abstracts and Views. He published numerous works, among them the report The Effect of the Wasted Pastures in Kikuyu and Masai Territories upon Native Herds, which is a classic in nutritional literature, and Minerals in Pastures and Their Relation to Animal Nutrition (1928). His pathbreaking survey Food, Health and Income (1936) defines the physiological ideal as a state of well-being requiring no improvement by a change of diet, finds that a diet completely adequate for health was reached in the United Kingdom in 1933-1934 at an income level above that of 50 percent of the population, and argues for the need of reconciling the interests of agriculture and public health. For these achievements Orr was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1932 and knighted in 1935 for his services to agriculture.
Orr's chief objectives during World War II were the prevention of food shortages in the military and civilian sectors of the nation; the development of world food policies capable of banning the specter of a postwar famine; and the planning of a supranational agency in the context of which food would be removed from international politics and trade by being treated differently from other goods. These aims dominated his term of office (1945-1948) as director general of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Thus he was instrumental in presenting, for the first time in history, a precise appraisal of the world food situation and in inducing governments to cooperate in the International Emergency Food Council and related common enterprises.
After resigning from the Rowett Institute in 1945, Orr won a Parliament seat, representing the Scottish universities, which he relinquished in 1947, and served at Glasgow University as rector in 1945 and as chancellor in 1946. In 1948 he received a peerage, in 1949 the Harben Medal from the Royal Institute of Public Health, and in 1949 the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to ensure peace by applying science to the removal of hunger and poverty. He died near Edzell, Scotland, on June 25, 1971.
Further Reading on John Boyd Orr
Two books that deal with Orr's life and work are Gove Hambidge, The Story of FAO (1955), and Orr's own As I Recall (1966).