Boyd Orr: before and after

As staff in SHW's Robertson Centre for Biostatistics prepare to leave the building that's been home to their unit since the early 1970s, director Prof John Petrie looks back on the history of the Boyd Orr tower and the life and work of Boyd Orr the man...

Aerial photo of the University of Glasgow campus in the 1960s and in 2023

For the last 30 years, the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics has been almost synonymous with the 11th (top) floor of the Boyd Orr Building on University Avenue. As I write in February 2023, we are moving to another top floor, this time of a brand new building – the Clarice Pears.   

As we say goodbye to our brutalist (and not very watertight) home at the top of our concrete tower, it seems a good time to reflect on Boyd Orr – the building and the man.

Boyd Orr: the building

The black and white photo shows the university estate from the air at the time the Boyd Orr was being built in the late 1960s. To orientate, you need to appreciate that University Avenue then continued straight down between the current Medical School and Mathematics and Statistics buildings, rather than as now taking a curve and then dropping a perpendicular through the apex of the triangle of (now-demolished) houses seen at the foot of the older photo.

The Boyd Orr was designed in 1964 as a general science "overflow" as a 50% increase in student numbers was expected as the 1970s approached and small departmental buildings could no longer support first-year student teaching.  The building was opened on 3 October 1972 costing £1.25m – at £21m in today’s money much cheaper than it cost to build the new James McCune Smith next door (2021, £90m) or the Clarice Pears (2023, £50m). Around 16 years later, the top storey became the new home of the Databases Unit in 1988 as an offshoot of the Department of Statistics. That Unit that was expanded with pump-priming funding from the Robertson Trust to become the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics in 1993. Other than the application of cladding (during construction of the JMS), refurbishment of two lecture theatres in 2009 and a never-ending series of roof repairs, the Boyd Orr has stood more or less constant ever since, just swaying a little on a windy day.

When you realise that John Boyd Orr died aged 91 having been Chancellor of the University for almost a quarter of a century just a year before the opening of the building it is not hard to see why he received this posthumous honour.

Boyd Orr: the man

But who was John Boyd Orr? Born in 1880, the son of a quarry owner from Ayrshire, it was recognised at Kilmarnock Academy that he was bright enough to serve as a "pupil teacher". He received a scholarship to train formally in teaching at Glasgow University, graduating MA in 1902. After a few years in the profession, he returned to study biology (BSc 1910) and then medicine (MBChB 1912), driven to undertake research on nutrition from his observations of poverty in the Glasgow slums. On graduating, he was then quickly appointed director of a new animal nutrition Institute in Aberdeen in 1913. War then intervened and he served as a military doctor including at the Somme (1916) and Passchendale (1917), winning the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order.

Boyd Orr spent the decade following the Great War back at the research institute in Aberdeen, at that time named the Rowett for a major donor who provided him funding for the construction. He had married his teenage sweetheart Elizabeth in 1915 and by 1921 they had two daughters and a son. His focus gradually changed over the next decade from animal to human nutrition. In 1936, he published a landmark report showing that the cost of a diet fulfilling basic nutritional requirements was beyond the means of half the British population - and that 10% of the population was undernourished. He came to believe that improved nutrition for all would help to bridge social and economic barriers between different groups and socioeconomic classes.

During the 2nd World War he served on Churchill's Scientific Committee on Food Policy, including advising on rationing. His son died on active service. In peace time, now aged 65 years, he accepted the post of Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – and also Rector and then Chancellor of Glasgow University. In 1946, he established the International Emergency Food Council as part of the task of post-war reconstruction, believing that the United Nations could contribute to world peace and unity through food distribution.

During his time as Chancellor of the University, he also made a personal fortune investing in the stock market – so when he received the Nobel Prize in 1949 he donated the entire sum to organizations devoted to world peace and a united world government. While not all of these ideals were in the end realised, one of his many achievements was the provision of free school milk for school children which contributed to the eradication of rickets.

Accepting the prize he said:

"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, with political ideas of spheres of influence and so on. 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."

Boyd Orr was elevated to Baron Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns in 1949 and died aged 90 in Edzell in 1971. From the above, we can see that there is much in his work for modern day teachers and researchers in the School of Health and Wellbeing to admire and emulate, particularly in the globally troubled times we still face.

So while we may be glad to say goodbye to our Boyd Orr Building, we must remember John Boyd Orr the man. World changers are still welcome in Glasgow - but he was one of the originals. His memory continues to live on in Boyd Orr House in Hammersmith, London, recently-opened as the new headquarters of the Nutrition Society. Although it’s not a patch on the Clarice Pears.

See you there!

Professor John Petrie
Director of the Robertson Centre for Biostatistics and Clinical Trials Unit and Professor of Diabetes  

Main sources (errors are mine)

First published: 16 February 2023

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