Orr | John Boyd | 1880-1971 | baron and nutritional physiologist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

John Boyd Orr, introducer of free school milk and of the aphorism 'freedom from famine', was born in Kilmaurs in Ayrshire in 1880. He was educated at the local parish school and at Kilmarnock Academy. At eighteen he left to simultaneously train as a schoolteacher and to study for an MA degree at Glasgow University. At Glasgow he saw the consequences of slum conditions: an experience that made him a passionate humanitarian. This led him to abandon teaching in order to study medicine and biological sciences at Glasgow and, to his final vocation, physiology and nutrition. In 1914 he went to Aberdeen to establish the Nutrition Institute (Rowett Research Institute from 1922). He served in the army and navy in the 1st World War and was decorated twice for bravery. Thereafter, war joined poverty as the potent purpose of his science. During World War 2 he devised a national diet that ensured the UK population was fit to sustain a successful war effort. Boyd Orr believed that greed - for food, land, economic wealth, and the emergent greed for oil - to be the root cause of war.

In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because he had used science as a way of 'making men healthier and happier so as to secure peace' (Nobel Presentation Speech). In his Nobel Acceptance Speech he linked nourishment, economic well-being and the removal of hunger as necessary for world peace. However, Orr saw his life bridging two worlds, and he believed that the destructive force of nuclear war was a new and terrifying possibility. Orr was the first scientist to discover the link between low income and nutritional deprivation and the consequent public outcry in the 1930s led to the adoption of his recommendations. These included improvements in agricultural output and increased consumption as consequent on the lowering of food prices. His work on the National Council for the Development of Scotland was later adopted as UK national policy and was amongst the most successful of the Welfare State reforms of the Modernist era.

The introduction of free school milk - a simple and practical measure - contributed to the disappearance of rickets from Britain's poor children. This alone demonstrates his ability as a scientist to see the general arising from the particular, and as a humanitarian his determination that knowledge should benefit ordinary people. Orr saw nutrition, productivity, national regeneration, freedom from class and national conflicts as interdependent and interrelated. After 1945 his ideas on international food rationing influenced policy in the USA, and crucially prevented famine in Europe. As director-general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) he ensured the mid 20th century and late 20th century acceptance of famine as an international responsibility. However, he felt bureaucracy and politics inhibited his work at the FAO and he resigned to promote the cause of world government that, he believed, could mount a two-pronged attack on famine. Firstly, by third world agricultural development, and secondly through the World Bank as controller of food prices on the world markets, and by the sale of food surpluses and the accumulation of food reserves. Linked to this was the aim of world peace that he actively pursued through a number of international peace organisations. The Nobel Peace Prize and a building at Glasgow University, named in his honour, are his monuments.



Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Minerals in Pastures and Their Relation to Animal Nutrition, ( 1929)

National Food Supply and Its Influence on National Health, ( 1934)

National Food Supply and Its Influence on National Health, ( 1936)

Report on the Physiological Bases of Nutrition, League of Nations Doc. No. A. 12 (a), ( 1936)

Final report of the Mixed committee of the League of Nations on the Relation of Nutrition to Health, Agriculture, and Economic Policy, League of Nations Doc. No. A. 13, ( 1937)

Nutritional Science and State Planning, ( 1937)

Feeding the People in Wartime, ( 1940)

Fighting for What?, ( 1942)

Food and the People, ( 1943)

Food: The Foundation of World Unity, ( 1948)

International Liaison Committee of Organisations for Peace: A New Strategy of Peace, ( 1950)

The White Man's Dilemma: Food and the Future, ( 1953)

The Wonderful World of Food: The Substance of Life, ( 1958)

As I Recall, ( 1966)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1929: Appointed Director, Institute of Animal Nutrition, University of Aberdeen

1929: Appointed Director, Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition

1935: Awarded knighthood

1942-1945: Appointed Professor of Agriculture, Aberdeen University

1945: Elected Rector, Glasgow University

1945: Elected MP for Scottish Universities

1945-1948: Appointed Director-general, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation

1946-1971: Appointed Chancellor, Glasgow University

1949: Created 1st baron Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns

1949: Awarded Nobel Peace Prize


List of sources for the biographical information:

Boyd-Orr of Brechin Mearns, John Boyd Orr, Baron, ( http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=16286, 1997-2002)

The Nobel Foundation, ( http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1949/orr-bio.html, 2002)

Kilmarnock Academy: Former Pupils, Lord Boyd Orr, ( http://www.kilmarnockacademy.co.uk/main_2.htm, 2001)