John Boyd Orr

John Boyd Orr

John Boyd OrrJohn Boyd Orr (known as Popeye to his family) was a visionary researcher, decorated war veteran, Nobel Peace Prize winner, political idealist and activist, and devoted supporter of this University.  He was born in Kilmaurs in 1880.  He graduated from the University of Glasgow with an arts degree, taught briefly ('though I liked the children, I hated teaching them' (1)), before enrolling for two further degrees in biology and medicine ('it would have been exceedingly difficult to get a job with only a science degree...' (1)). Boyd Orr was a pretty intrepid character.  While some of his fellow students supported their studies by working down the mines at night, Boyd Orr bought a block of flats (with a £5 deposit on the mortgage), selling them for a modest profit on graduation.  

He was subsequently offered a Carnegie scholarship to study physiology at Glasgow, before being asked to apply to lead the Rowett Institute for Research in Animal Nutrition.  He turned up for an interview in Aberdeen on April Fool's Day 1914, only to discover that the Institute (like many others!) didn't actually exist.  However, he accepted the subsequent job offer in part because it provided him with the financial security he felt he needed to propose to his fiancé who he had courted for 19 years.  He set about arranging the financing required to develop the Rowett Institute, only to be interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War.  

Political career

He enrolled as a medical officer with the Sherwood Foresters seeing action at both the Somme and Passchendaele, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross (which he refused to wear, partly on the grounds that the really brave men were dead), before resigning his commission and enrolling in the Royal Navy for the remainder of the war. He returned to see the first building of his new Institute completed in 1919, and worked to develop what was to become a world famous research program in both animal and human nutrition.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1932.  Plans to retire in 1940 were disrupted by the onset of the Second World War.  

Boyd Orr's work became progressively more involved in policy development as his own research highlighted the massive problems of malnutrition in Britain during the 1930's, the increasingly serious food shortages that arose during the Second World War, and the near disastrous food production and distribution problems in Europe and elsewhere in the years after the war.  His increasing exposure to politics led him to be elected to represent the Scottish Universities at Westminster in 1945.  His international work on food supply and nutrition led to his nomination to be the first Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945, an appointment to which he reluctantly agreed - worried that a mere scientist would lack the necessary political clout to prevail in those desperate times, but he had also learned he had been elected Rector (and later Chancellor) of the University of Glasgow and was concerned he could not do both jobs properly.  In 1949 he was enobled and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He eventually retired to a farm close to Newton of Strathcathro in the Grampians and died in 1971.

Boyd Orr's legacy

Boyd Orr's work was fuelled by a burning resentment of human injustice, and an intense frustration that the lessons of basic science were so ineffectively applied to the alleviation of human suffering.   As the chairman of the Nobel committee he observed: 'The purpose of his scientific work was to find ways of making men healthier and happier so as to secure peace; he believes that healthy and happy men have no need to resort to arms in order to expand and acquire living space' (2).

Boyd Orr himself wrote, 'We must conquer hunger and want, because hunger and want in the midst of plenty are a fatal flaw and a blot on our civilization. They are one of the fundamental causes of war. But it is no use trying to build the new world from the top down … we have to build it from the bottom upwards, and provide first the primary necessities of life for the people who have never had them, and build from the slums of this country upwards.' (3)  

Indeed, it was the appalling living conditions he witnessed in Glasgow as a student, and, later, his observations during his travels for the FAO that reinforced to Boyd Orr the necessity of 'bringing science to politics' (4).  If some of his political views now appear simplistic it is worth remembering that the most influential science is often born of a fine blend of naivety and self-doubt, to be bold enough to try something, and persistent and critical enough to implement it.  Boyd Orr's recognition of the common role of basic biology in the well-being of both animals and humans was ahead of his time.  

He has been described as 'the practical farmer who extended the stone-dykes of his Grampian farm to encompass the earth; and as a research scientist who made the whole world his laboratory' (4).  The Centre is named after him in recognition of both his achievements, and his distinctive blend of scientific integrity, ambition, modesty, determination and pragmatism.

  1. As I recall. John Boyd Orr. MacGibbon and Kee, London (1966) [the book is in the library and is well worth a read]
  2. Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Oslo (1949)
  3. John Boyd Orr, Welfare and Peace, London: National Peace Council (1945)
  4. Professor Ritchie Calder in his preface to 1.