Obituary: Professor R. A. McCance

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The Independent Online
Robert Alexander McCance, physician, born near Belfast 9 December 1898, qualified in medicine King's College Hospital 1927, Reader in Medicine Cambridge University 1938, Professor of Experimental Medicine Medical Research Council and Cambridge University 1945-66, FRS 1948, CBE 1953, married 1922 Mary L. McGregor (died 1965; one son, one daughter), died Cambridge 5 March 1993.

R. A. McCANCE, cycling deep in thought through the streets of Cambridge, was as familiar and individual a part of the academic scene of the Fifties and Sixties as the strutting figure of F. R. Leavis. Though there any obvious similarity ends except, perhaps, for the likelihood of their both being outdoors, however foul the weather.

McCance, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Cambridge University from 1945 to 1966 - Mac to his friends and close colleagues, Alec to his family, and 'a curiosity' to his old nurse - made the bulk of his scientific contributions at what some consider to be the blunt end of medicine, in food and nutrition, but no less distinguished are they for that.

Few could claim to be so influential as McCance in fields as different as the physiology of the newborn, man's dietary needs, the physiological response to climatic stress, survival at sea, the rehabilitation of undernourished and starving casualties of war, kwashiorkor in Africa's children, or the growth and metabolism of man and farm animals.

One of the sons of a Northern Irish linen family, he made his way to Cambridge via St Bees School, Cumbria, in which he maintained a lifetime interest, the Royal Naval Air Service which, in the First World War, gave him experience in flying observation aircraft off a midship turret of the Indomitable (and a deep suspicion of flying for the rest of his life), and a dairy farm in County Antrim. His original intention had been to take the Cambridge Diploma in Agriculture but he found himself at Sidney Sussex College taking both parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos.

By 1926 he had already completed some research in Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins's laboratory and had collected a Ph D in the process. Some of his research on the enzyme tyrosinase was noted in JBS Haldane's report for 1922 to the Secretary of the Sir William Dunn Institute which he presented in rhyming couplets.

He went from there to King's College Hospital, London, which was not only to provide his medical training but, through an interest in the diet of diabetics, his launch into the chemistry of foodstuffs. His celebrated meeting with Elsie Widdowson in the hospital kitchens started a scientific partnership which was to last for almost 60 years.

Little was known at that time about the composition of food and the Medical Research Council was eventually persuaded that something should be done about it. And so it was. The Chemical Composition of Foods was published in 1940. In 1992 the fifth edition of what is now known as McCance and Widdowson's Composition of Foods, a direct descendant of this initiative and probably the most authoritative publication of its kind, became the latest in the line of sacred texts for dieticians, public-health officials, nutrition policy-makers, doctors and researchers.

By the start of the Second World War, McCance had returned to Cambridge to become Reader in Medicine and a Fellow of Sidney Sussex. There followed a 10-year period of research to cope with the scourges of war and its aftermath. Thus began a study of rationing in wartime Britain and the adequacy of the diets designed to accommodate the availability and variety of foods which Lord Woolton could procure. McCance and his colleagues lived on these diets for prolonged periods and showed, to the chagrin of their critics, their adequacy even for those taking severe exercise. Many indeed consider the wartime diet to be the healthiest Britain ever had. The associated research led to the statutory inclusion of chalk (as a source of calcium) in all flour used for bread-baking in the UK.

For three years after the war, McCance and Widdowson led the Medical Research Council's investigations in Germany on the effects of war shortages and rationing of food on the civilian population many of whom had returned from the Russian front. These classic studies enlisted the collaboration of experts to cover the wide variety of medical conditions encountered. Anything from anxiety neuroses to heart and liver problems and the breast-feeding of babies was included and often became the basis of career-long interests for the team members many of whom were to become leading figures in science and medicine.

During the war the Navy had been greatly concerned with the losses of mariners and airmen who found themselves in the sea after enemy action. McCance was made Chairman of the joint Medical Research Council and Royal Naval Committee on Survival at Sea. The research which this committee eventually spawned included the design of life-rafts, and seasickness preparations, the effects of cold on survivors and whether drinking sea-water was a safe practice - it was not. McCance was inevitably in the thick of the research, often done in small vessels in the teeth of the fiercest Atlantic gales.

The Fifties and Sixties saw the experimental follow-up to much of this work and a new range of collaborations. A significant part of this research led to new understandings of how animals grow and the ways in which food, age or time impinge upon it. This was recorded in McCance's Lumleian lectures to the Royal College of Physicians in 1962 which provide an excellent example of his impeccable literary style, the result of fastidious preparation, exactitude in the use of English and meticulous revision.

The 1960s also brought official retirement for McCance, though for him it simply meant the start of a new career. He became Caretaker Director of the Medical Research Council's Infantile Malnutrition Unit at the Mulago Hospital in Kampala until a medical successor to Dr Rex Dean, a colleague from the German interlude, could be found.

His later years did not diminish his zest for science. His cycling days were ended after a contretemps with a pedestrian as he was crossing Parker's Piece. Though he became increasingly frail he nevertheless took great pride in assisting with the recent preparation of a book which celebrates his 60-year partnership with Elsie Widdowson, and is due to be published in the early summer.

McCance was a man of regular habit whose working day was punctuated only by periods of cycling and walking and the occasional cup of coffee. His one meal of the day, taken in the evening, left him good for little but an early night.

A curiosity he might have been: scientific curiosity drove him throughout his life.

(Photograph omitted)