ASK anyone about the 13 Nobel laureates that Scotland has notched up over the decades and they will undoubtedly point to Sir Alexander Fleming as the greatest of them, and there is little argument against the fact that Fleming’s discoveries in the field of antibiotics make him our top Nobel Prize winner.
Fleming’s discoveries won him a share of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. His work has arguably saved more human lives than any other single person in history, but another Scottish Nobel laureate, Sir James Black, could be argued to be just as influential for his work on beta blockers and anti-ulcer drugs that saw him win the Nobel prize for medicine in 1988.
Yet another Scottish Nobel laureate has a fair claim to have changed the face of the world as we know it and helped to save and improve countless millions of lives into the bargain.
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He was Sir John Boyd Orr, the 1st Baron Boyd-Orr, who was the first Director General of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the co-founder of the World Academy of Art and Science. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 for his work on nutrition, a science that he transformed and which arguably has saved tens of millions of lives ever since.
Born into a middle-class family in Kilmaurs in Ayrshire in 1880, Boyd Orr was the son of a quarry owner, Robert Clark Orr, and a mother, Annie Boyd who was the daughter of a quarry master. They had seven children in all, John being the middle child.
It was a religious family, Orr senior being a member of the Free Church of Scotland, and John Boyd Orr constantly quoted the Bible throughout his life.
After winning a scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy he went to West Kilbride, which had become the family’s home town, to work as a student teacher in the local school. It was there he met his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had a son Donald Noel and two daughters, Elizabeth and Helen Anne. Donald was killed in the RAF in the Second World World.
He qualified as a teacher in Glasgow where he was shocked by the poverty in which much of the population lived. He famously resigned his first full-time teaching job after a few days, realising he could not teach starving children.
He taught in Saltcoats for three years and also gained qualifications in bookkeeping and accountancy before he began his biology and medicine studies at the University of Glasgow, qualifying as a doctor. He would later become both Rector and Chancellor of the university.
He had become an enthusiast for research into nutrition, and in 1914 he was appointed director of the Institute of Animal Nutrition in Aberdeen.
He served as a doctor in the battle fields of the First World War and won the Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order for bravery for treating wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
He briefly transferred to be a ship’s surgeon before, in 1919, he became director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, a position he held until 1945 when he became professor of agriculture at Aberdeen University.
According to the citation nominating Boyd Orr for the Peace Prize: “During his term of office at the Rowett Institute, Boyd Orr laid the foundations for the agricultural and nutritional policies which he was later to pursue in the FAO.
“He published an impressive number of papers while he was director of the Rowett Institute, confining his work until 1928 to studies on the nutrition of domestic animals.
“His first work devoted to human nutrition, Milk Consumption and the Growth of School Children, which appeared in 1928, was based on dietary experiments carried out among schoolchildren in the mining districts. This publication marked the beginning of a whole series of papers dealing with the subject of the human diet: Diet and Illness, Diet, Health and Agriculture, and many others. In 1936 he published Food, Health and Income, a work which more than any other helped to stimulate discussion of nutritional problems and to lay the foundation for a positive nutritional policy.”
It is hard to understate the sensation Boyd Orr’s work caused – it also gained him a knighthood. He singlehandedly proved that even in the UK, where the standard of living was higher than in most countries, the diet of a large part of the population was inferior to that accepted by nutritional physiologists as adequate.
Boyd Orr proved conclusively Britain had to have a substantial increase in agricultural production if the population was to receive adequate nutrition. A major by-product of his work was that during the war Britain, brought in rationing and by the end of the conflict, the British population as a whole was healthier than in 1939.
Boyd Orr’s ideas soon spread internationally and even before the war, the League of Nations Assembly appointed him to an international committee of nutritional physiologists to establish the food requirements of the world.
After the war, the very first agency set up by the United Nations was the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Boyd Orr commented: “All nations must accept the responsibility of assuring their own people the food which is necessary to maintain life and health. Governments must cooperate to ensure that this goal is attained by people in all countries. This is the first step on the road to fulfilling the Atlantic Charter’s promise of freedom from want.”
Again according to the Nobel organisation “one of the most important tasks of the FAO after the war was to ensure an equitable distribution among the nations of the world of the food products which were in short supply.”
Boyd Orr was instrumental in setting up the International Emergency Food Council which was a sort of international rationing directorate whose operations continued until the summer of 1949. This rationing arrangement was undoubtedly responsible for preventing the famine which threatened many countries in the post-war period.
According to his Nobel citation: “Under Boyd Orr’s direction the FAO has become the most efficient organisation in this field. It has taken up a series of technical and economic problems which must be solved before any real progress in the development of agriculture can be made. In numerous ways it has assisted the introduction of new farming methods.”
THERE was another side to Boyd Orr – his political philosophy based on a passion for peace.
He became an MP briefly and in 1945 he was elected president of the National Peace Council, representing more than 50 British peace organisations. In 1949 he became president of the new World Union of Peace Organisations and president of the World Movement for World Federal Government.
Introducing Boyd Orr for his Prize, Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Committee, said: “His accomplishment is immense. Few can claim to have planned and carried through a work as important to the human race as his, a work which clearly paves the way for peace.”
The modest Boyd Orr replied with a typical clarion call for peace: “There can be nothing glorious or chivalrous about a war with atomic bombs and the more terrifying biological weapons. A war with these weapons would be wholesale massacre of civilians old and young, from which few in Europe would escape, for, as has been truly said there would be ‘nowhere to hide’.
“Alfred Nobel’s greatest contribution to the welfare of humanity was not high explosives which have been of great value in mining and other industries. That would have been invented soon, in any case, by some chemist. It was his prophetic foresight which enabled him to see that the advance of science would make war so disastrous that no government of sane men would consider war as a means of settling international disputes.”
Boyd Orr’s vision of a form of world government based on peaceful principles was stated often. He wrote: “However difficult it may be to bring it about, some form of world government, with agreed international law and means of enforcing the law, is inevitable.
“As we have seen, the wireless and the airplane have made the world so small and nations so dependent on each other that the only alternative to war is the United States of the World.”
He was also one of the first to advocate nuclear disarmament, and warned: “Some think the worst horrors of war might be avoided by an international agreement not to use atomic bombs. This is a vain hope.”
Nor was he scared to antagonise those on the Left who would have seemed his natural allies: The real evil of the Russian communist state is not communism. It is the secret police and the concentration camp.”
His other writings and worlds can show an almost uncanny prescience. Let’s hope he did not foresee Donald Trump when he wrote: “It is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. It may well be that a war neurosis stirred up by propaganda of fear and hatred is the prelude to destruction.”
Gunnar Jahn said of him in 1949: “For John Boyd Orr the purpose of his scientific work is 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. ‘We must’, to quote his own words, ‘conquer hunger and want, because hunger and want in the midst of plenty are a fatal flaw and a blot on our civilisation. 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.’ “Elsewhere he says: ‘Agreements between nations not to go to war have never lasted, and will never be enough to maintain the peace. The nations must construct peace through daily cooperation, with a positive goal in view, a goal which is seen to be mutually advantageous. Only this can remove the principal causes of war.’”
Jahn concluded: “For this great work in the service of mankind which, once begun, can never be halted, he richly merits the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Boyd Orr was elevated to the peerage for his national and international commitment later in 1949.
In 1960 Boyd Orr was elected the first president of the World Academy of Art and Science, and he continued to write and speak about his favourite causes until he lived quietly in retirement in Edzell, Angus, publishing his memoirs in 1966.
He died in 1971, aged 90. A teacher, doctor, war hero, scientist and, above all, a passionate campaigner for peace, this Ayrshire lad o’ pairts should have much more attention paid to him, especially now.