Celebrating the life of nutrition pioneer John Waterlow

john-waterlooTributes were paid to pioneering researcher Professor John Waterlow at a commemorative symposium organised by the School to celebrate his life and achievements.The event included personal reminiscences by friends and family as well as memories of the significant medical contributions made by the internationally-renowned scientist. His immense kindness was highlighted by former students and staff.

Prof Waterlow, who died last October at the age of 94, led the way in research into the treatment of severely malnourished children and helped to save many lives worldwide. He worked at the School for 12 years as Professor of Human Nutrition from 1970 to 1982.

Experts in the field of nutrition and child health were among the speakers at the Symposium on April 7. These included Joe Millward, Professor Emeritus at the University of Surrey, Alan Jackson, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Southampton, Philip James, President of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, Sir George Alleyne, Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and David Nabarro, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Food Security and Nutrition. The Symposium was followed by a reception which allowed guests to share their many happy memories of John over a glass of wine.

Born in 1916, the Eton-educated academic won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1935 to study classics but decided to switch to medicine and physiology. After graduating in 1942, he worked for the Medical Research Council and was sent to the Caribbean to find the causes of high child mortality. He found many children had oedematous malnutrition and very fatty livers. Taking a hands-on approach with equipment he had made himself, he showed that liver enzyme activity was greatly reduced in children with this form of malnutrition.

In 1954 he persuaded the MRC to establish a research unit in Jamaica – the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit – with laboratories and a 16-bed ward for severely malnourished children. He oversaw the transfer of the Unit to the University of the West Indies in 1970 before taking up his post at LSHTM, where he greatly expanded the breadth and depth of research. As well as teaching and various other responsibilities, the Professor advised the Government about nutrition and chaired the first UK committee to report on obesity.

In 1939 he married artist and historian Angela Gray, who died in 2005. Professor Waterlow is survived by his three children and by Joan Stephen, his colleague and companion. During the Symposium, biochemist Joan Stephen described how she met John while working at the MRC in 1954 and helped him set up the unit in Jamaica. They went on to share many holidays in Austria where John was able to pursue his love of walking. Also paying tribute, John’s daughter Sarah Broadie, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, said she shared her father’s interest in classical culture and literature. But science was his “real love”, she said, adding that he was also very practical, organised, a great diarist and a tremendous optimist.

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