Boyd Orr Cohort

Teacher, soldier, nutritionist, broadcaster, MP, Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Families' weekly food diary
Boyd Orr lecturing

John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) had a remarkable life. His first career as a teacher exposed him to the effects of poverty on children. He retrained as a medical doctor and then established the Rowett Centre for Nutrition with the help of a wealthy merchant, John Quiller Rowett, in 1922. The expansion of the institute continued over the years. The institute exists today, and still has an interest in educating children about nutrition.

Initially working on animal nutrition, he also worked on the effects of milk on the growth of children (the research led to the school milk programme in Scotland and England). He continued to work on evidence that many children in the UK were not getting sufficient nutrients and were therefore unhealthy.

In the mid-thirties he started to correlate income with health. It was during this period that he did the research that forms the basis of the Boyd Orr Cohort.

During WWII he used his research to plan for wartime rationing (for instance diverting milk to women and infants) and also broadcast on radio. At the end of the war his policies had been effective: women and children from the poorer classes were healthier than when the war started.

After 'retiring' he was elected an MP and went on to plan for post war food provision at the international level. He was awarded many honorary doctorates and medal and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.

Carnegie United Kingdom Trust's study of Family Diet and Health

Families' weekly food diary
A Families' weekly food diary [+]

Boyd Orr surveyed 4999 children as part of a study into family health. The aim of the study was  to relate the quality of diet both to family income and to the health of the children living in the household. Additionally the effects of supplements were also examined. The families and children studied were from more deprived localities.

The study is rare in that it required families to keep food diaries - most research to date has only looked at measurements of birth and weight. As well as food diaries the study recorded method of infant feeding, occupation of the head of household, family income and expenditure, housing type and quality and birth weight and order. 3700 children were also given detailed physical examinations including dental exams.

The Boyd Orr cohort

Of the 4999 children surveyed in 1936/37 3200 were sent a detailed follow-up questionnaire in 1997/98. In 2002/3 further surveys followed and over 700 subjects gave blood samples (including some suitable for DNA extraction) and several hundred were given arterial ultrasound scans to check their heart function.

The initial aim of establishing the Boyd Orr cohort in 1997/8 was to investigate the long-term impact of environmental factors in early life on adult coronary heart disease mortality. The impact of poor childhood nutrition on adult health had been the subject of research and policy interest for many years, but interest in the influence of early life factors on adult cardiovascular disease was re-awakened by a series of studies that began in the 1980s by Professor David Barker and colleagues at the University of Southampton (see Hertfordshire Cohort Study).

Further studies on the cohort have investigated a range of diseases, particularly coronary heart disease and cancer in relation to infant and childhood diet, the socio-economic conditions experienced by the children, and markers of childhood nutritional status (body mass index, leg length, and height).

What has the research found?

Key findings from the cohort study include:

Diet, cardiovascular disease and cancer risk: First evidence in humans that that high levels of energy intake are associated with increased cancer risk in later life and that children whose family diets were rich in fruits had a reduced cancer risk.

Leg length: Leg length has been found to be a sensitive indicator of pre-pubertal growth patterns and the measurement that best proves the beneficial effects of breast feeding and diet supplements on childhood growth.

Breastfeeding: A series of studies examining the relationship between infant nutrition, growth, and health in adulthood is underway. Breastfeeding was associated with being taller in childhood and adulthood; the component of height associated with breastfeeding was leg length but not trunk length. These findings suggest that breastfeeding may be a factor underlying previous findings that taller people (in particular those with longer legs) have less heart disease.

Further Reading