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Robert Alexander McCance (1898 - 1993):
Physician and nutitional scientist


Robert Alexander McCance

Robert Alexander McCance was a highly distinguished pioneer in the field of the study of nutrition, known not least for his insistence on experimenting on himself. Many of his results are still highly significant today.

He was born at Woodbourne House, on one or other of two dates provided by his parents, one of the great linen houses in the Lagan valley, in Colin Glen, then known as McCance's Glen, south-west of Belfast. His family had been for generations amongst the most prominent linen merchants in the district. His father, John Stouppe Finlay McCance, had graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford and qualified as a barrister in Dublin, but on the death of his own father in 1890, had returned to the family business; "Alec", as Robert Alexander was known, would later describe an enjoyable boyhood in the Glen, (which his father maintained with well-replenished stocks of minor game and fish, employing a gamekeeper and local beaters at half-a-crown a day). Alec would later be known to hunt, fish and to sail canvas boats he built himself, but meanwhile, at eight years old he went to Mourne Grange Primary School, Kilkeel and at 13, to St Bee's School, Cumberland.

During the First World War he served in the Royal Naval Air Service (and from 1918 in the new Royal Air Force) piloting observation aircraft launched from the battlecruiser Indomitable. At the end of the war, he decided to return to Ulster to pursue his interest in agriculture rather than following his brothers to Oxford University; his father, who was Chairman of Antrim County Council, knew some members of the County Antrim Committee of Agriculture who recommended that McCance proceed to Cambridge University with a view to study for the Diploma in Agriculture, which no-one from Northern Ireland had yet done. Accordingly, McCance first trained in lowland farming at Greenmount Agricultural College near Muckamore, County Antrim, before going to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1919.

At Cambridge, his tutor advised him to study Natural Sciences which would after two years give him an honours degree; at this time, the deteriorating situation in Ireland was serving to dissuade him from his agricultural ambitions. He took his tutor's advice, attained first class honours and continued to Natural Sciences Part II under Joseph Barcroft, the celebrated physiologist from Newry. On graduation, in 1925 he moved to King's College Hospital, London. Here he became interested in the composition of foods, following on from his work in the new diabetic unit, where insulin was a new treatment and knowledge of "available carbohydrate" in raw and cooked fruit and vegetables was needed, no suitable data existing. McCance's experimental research in this area was later published as a Medical Research Council Special Report in 1929, still regarded as one of the finest publications in its field. He moved on to study raw and cooked meat and fish, especially regarding the loss of nutrients through cooking. He continued to study cereals, dairy products and fats, all work published as Medical Research Council Special Reports, which were eventually published in composite form with long-term collaborator EM Widdowson in 1940 as The Chemical Composition of Foods, which was to go through several editions and remains the standard British publication on the composition of foods.

In 1938, he was appointed Reader in Medicine at Cambridge University. Early in the Second World War he made a study of the effects of rationing which involved him and several colleagues subsisting on a very low-fat diet, based on the likely diet to be forced on the UK by the war: food which could produced domestically as against food which would have to be imported. McCance and his volunteers subsisted on this diet for 3 months, which was followed by a 200-mile bicycle stretch and extensive hill walking. His conclusion from this experiment was that rationing as was introduced in January 1940 had little deleterious or other effect on the body, although his recommendation that bread and vegetables not be rationed, was adopted. A further, year-long, experiment involved investigating eight different types of bread, which led him to recommend the inclusion of calcium carbonate in flour used in bread-making - this is still law today.

McCance also investigated the effects of salt deprivation, always in the lead of his panel of volunteers, and also of dehydration. He and a colleague deprived themselves of water for 3 days, leading to dramatic weight reduction, mostly loss of water. McCance was one of the first to conclude that body fluid osmosis was the probable cause of death by dehydration.

Later in the war, he investigated the nutritional aspects of survival at sea. He was able to prove that drinking seawater was more harmful than drinking no fluid at all. He also concluded that the greatest hazard to those shipwrecked was fall in deep body temperature, which was more probable in those with less body fat but could also be lessened by clothing and by minimal movement.  He also recommended the protection of lifeboats against exposure to the elements, designing a covered liferaft which is now standard, and worked on the development of new tablets to combat seasickness. In 1945 he was awarded a personal chair by Cambridge University as Professor of Experimental Medicine, which he retained until retirement in 1966 when he became Professor Emeritus. He continued his interest in nutrition, including undernourishment - he travelled to Wuppertal in post-War Germany to study the effects of a 1000-calorie-per-day diet, and also  carried out comparative experiments on pigs, which he bred himself at his home near Cambridge. A further interest was in the physiology of newborn infants, which led to the development of a new discipline, the Physiology of Infancy. He was the first President of the Neonatal Society and from 1966-1968 was Head of the Medical Research Council Infantile Malnutrition Unit, Mulago Hospital, Kampala

Over the course of his career McCance published over 300 papers and six Medical Research Council Special Reports. With EM Widdowson, he published Breads White and Brown: Their Place in Thought and Social History, in 1956. His many awards and honours included honorary memberships of the American Pediatric Society, the Association of American Physicians, the Swiss Nutrition Society and the British Paediatric Association. McCance was also widely admired for his lucid writing and as a lecturer. Perhaps his most important lectures where those in which he set out clearly his views on the ethics of experimentation on humans. He had always been the first person on whom he experimented, at a time when there were no ethical research committees. These lectures were delivered to the Royal Society of Medicine in 1950; and a series entitled "Reflections of a Medical Investigator", was delivered at Groningen, the Netherlands, in 1959. In 1964 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Queen's University, Belfast; he was appointed CBE in 1953 and elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1948.



Born: 8 December 1898
Died: 5 March 1993
Richard Froggatt