MRC Elsie Widdowson Laboratory

History

The MRC Elsie Widdowson Laboratory (MRC EWL) advances the MRC’s distinguished history of nutrition research in Cambridge. This began with MRC founding members and funding recipients, including Sir Frederick Gowland-Hopkins, Prof Sir Edward Mellanby and Dame Harriette Chick. These nutrition pioneers lead the discovery that vitamin deficiencies cause diseases such as rickets and scurvy and this knowledge resulted in treatment and prevention of these diseases.

Expanding on, and continuing, this ground-breaking work on vitamins, the MRC established the MRC Dunn Nutrition Laboratory in 1927 with a wider scope to investigate human nutrition.

In a proposal to the University of Cambridge in 1929, the MRC Dunn Nutritional Laboratory was: “to be concerned with the scientific basis of medicine, and in the first instance with the physiology of human nutrition, with a view to getting better knowledge of the fundamental principles that should guide human dietetics”. Dr Leslie Harris was Director of the Dunn from 1929 to 1963 and Dr Egon Kodicek was Director from 1963 to 1973. During this time the Dunn had sites off Milton Road and at the old and new Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.

During almost 80 years of nutrition research, scientists at the Dunn carried out key early work on vitamins A, D, E and C. In 1966 Dr Elsie Widdowson FRS, joined the Dunn. In addition to her research on infant nutrition she and colleagues compiled information for the fourth edition of The Composition of Foods, which was published in 1978. Dr Roger Whitehead became Director of the Dunn from 1973, during this time applied nutrition studies were used to contribute further to the understanding of malnutrition, lactation, bone health and energy requirements.

In 1998 MRC Human Nutrition Research (MRC HNR) was formed due to the restructuring of the Dunn and following the retirement of the director Dr Roger Whitehead. MRC HNR’s mission was to conduct nutrition research and surveillance to improve the health of the population with a focus on cardiometabolic risk and obesity, musculoskeletal health, intestinal function and nutritional vulnerabilities. Dr Ann Prentice was the Director of MRC HNR which was housed in the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory in Cambridge, named after Dr Elsie Widdowson, CH, CBE, FRS, a pioneer of nutrition science.

During this period, the Dunn continued under the directorship of Professor Sir John Walker FRS, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. In 2009, the Dunn was renamed the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit.

In 2016, following restructuring and refocussing of its research interests MRC HNR was renamed the MRC Elsie Widdowson Laboratory (MRC EWL), this took effect from 01 September 2016. Under the directorship of Dr Ann Prentice, MRC EWL’s remit remains to conduct nutrition research and surveillance to improve the health of the population and to inform policy and practice. MRC EWL continues to be housed in the Elsie Widdowson Laboratory.