Scientist John Boyd Orr honored at the University of Glasgow

Scottish scientist Sir John Boyd Orr is credited with being the first in his field to establish a clear link between poverty, poor diet, poor health and academic performance.

His pioneering research resulted in millions of children across Britain receiving free school milk from 1946 to 1971, when Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, cut the supply, a decision she is said to have later regretted.

He was a government adviser and oversaw food rationing during World War II until he fell out with politicians. His Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 may have been a consolation.

Experts say Orr’s legacy in nutrition “has changed our understanding of the relationship between diet and health.”


He was also among a group of eminent scientists concerned about the potential misuse of scientific discoveries, including nuclear weapons.

His conclusions were crystal clear: “Health comes at a price”

His legacy was celebrated on Thursday with the unveiling of a blue plaque at Glasgow University, where he studied medicine and life sciences and where a building has been named after him.

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The university said the plaque recognizes Boyd Orr’s “outstanding contributions to science and humanity and further anchors his legacy in the fabric of the university where his career flourished.”


Born in Kilmaurs on 23 September 1880, after graduating he worked for four months as a ship’s doctor and for six weeks as a reserve doctor before accepting a two-year Carnegie Research Fellowship in Physiology.

He then became a nutritional physiologist and in 1913 the Rowett Institute, now part of Aberdeen University, was founded as a research center under his direction.

His work linked low income, malnutrition and underachievement in schools and in 1927 his research proved the value of supplying milk to school children, leading to a free milk supply in the UK.


His Food, Health and Income report, published in 1936, showed that at least a third of the British population could not afford to buy enough food for a healthy diet.

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He was knighted in 1935 and during World War II Boyd Orr was a member of Churchill’s Scientific Committee on Food Policy and helped formulate food rationing

In 1949 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “visionary work and advocacy of improved nutrition as a path to world peace”. He died in 1971.

The plaque of honor was unveiled by Professor Godfrey Smith, Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Glasgow, at a ceremony hosted by the Physiological Society, of which Boyd Orr was a member.

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Professor David Attwell, President of the Society, said: “We are honored to be in Glasgow to unveil this plaque commemorating John Boyd Orr.”

“He was the first scientist to discover the link between poverty, poor nutrition and poor health, and his legacy on nutrition has transformed our understanding of the link between diet and health.”

“The Physiological Society’s Blue Plaque program increases the visibility of physiology and gives the general public a glimpse of the positive role that ‘the science of life’ plays in their everyday lives.

“We hope these plaques will stimulate curiosity and help inspire new generations to engage with the physiological sciences.”

In 1960, Boyd Orr became the first President of the World Academy of Art and Science, an organization founded by eminent scientists concerned about the potential misuse of scientific discoveries such as nuclear weapons.

Ronald Baxendal, Professor of Human Physiology at the University of Glasgow, was among the speakers at yesterday’s commemoration.

He said: “Before the First World War, Boyd Orr was a world leader in identifying the link between poor diet and poor health.”


“His problem was malnutrition linked to poverty. Our problem now is obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

“The solution lies in improving health through better nutrition.”

Professor Ada Garcia, also from the University of Glasgow, added: “His conclusions were crystal clear: ‘Health comes at a price.’

“He found that more deprived households had poorer diets and proposed the link between diet quality and risk of disease and death.

“This is the foundation of what many of us who work in nutrition and public health are doing now.”

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