Obituary: John Yudkin

Louise Davies
Monday 24 July 1995 23:02

There are few of us today whose eating habits have not been influenced by the work and the words of John Yudkin.

Yudkin was an academic who knew the power of communication. His book titles and his lectures to his students and, through radio and television, to a wider public were memorable in their simplicity: Pure, White and Deadly (1972) summed up his hypothesis of the connection between sugar and disease; This Slimming Business (1958) and the books and talks that followed were the voice of reason in a turbulent market.

Yudkin had no equal in his ability to inspect a column of figures or a table of results and, within a second or two, pick out the trends and highlights and put them into simple, clearly expressed English. His wide interests - ranging from the purchase of modern works of art to the collection of antiquarian books on nutrition and cookery - were reflected in his achievements: the modern and futuristic aspirations for his Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, London University, together with the establishment of an informal society which brought together the views of nutritionists and historians.

Yudkin was far ahead of his time with his idea of nutrition as a subject of great breadth: not just the study of the composition of foods, but the importance of enjoying a variety of fresh foods, and the recognition of the psychological and social factors that cause us to choose certain foods and avoid others. His idea that too much sugar is harmful brought him into conflict with powerful lobbies but he was never afraid to question established dogma.

John Yudkin was born in the East End of London in 1910, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father died when he was seven years old and his mother was left to bring up five sons in very poor circumstances.

John showed exceptional intelligence and won several scholarships - first to the Grocers' School, then to Chelsea Polytechnic and finally to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied Physiology and Biochemistry. His ability so impressed Marjorie Stephenson, the eminent bacteriologist, that she offered to fund him out of her own pocket while he studied with her for his PhD. His research in her laboratory brought him to international attention, and he could have had a distinguished career as a microbiologist. But he was already developing an interest in nutrition, a new subject being explored in the biochemistry laboratory at Cambridge where he was working.

In the 1930s, to become a nutritionist it was necessary first to become a doctor. By this time, Yudkin had a wife to support, but he entered medical school and kept his wife and himself by teaching undergraduates in spare hours. After gaining his medical degree he began research in the prestigious Dunn Nutritional Laboratories, in Cambridge.

During the Second World War Yudkin joined the Medical Corps and was posted to West Africa. Paradoxically, it was felt that he would be of more use to the Army as a pathologist than as a new-fangled nutritionist, but he nevertheless took the opportunity of conducting nutritional research. After the war he was appointed to the Chair of Physiology at Queen Elizabeth College, London. With enthusiasm and a fund-raising acumen typical of him, he seized the opportunity to build up a flourishing department specialising in Nutrition.

He persuaded the college and London University to establish BSc and MSc degrees in Nutrition, a milestone in nutrition education. The Department of Nutrition at QEC became internationally famous. Many of his students from Asia and Africa went on to become scientific leaders in their own countries. His influence in dealing with humanitarian and nutritional problems at home and abroad cannot be overstated.

Yudkin had been brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household and always retained an interest in communal Jewish affairs. When the state of Israel was founded, the new government, faced with severe difficulties in feeding its population, turned to him for advice. For many years he was an active governor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; his election in 1993 as an Honorary Fellow of the university gave him immense pleasure.

Yudkin was an extremely popular head of department, friendly, unaffected and approachable. At a surprise party to celebrate his 80th birthday, in 1990, he was presented with a book of affectionate tributes, including one from Slimming Magazine that particularly pleased him: "Internationally renowned . . . most eminent pioneer nutritionist, most readable of scientific authors, most approachable and kindly of colleagues . . . He has never lost his naughty twinkle, gentle wit or boyish figure."

In 1933 he married, only a few weeks after meeting her, Milly Himmelweit, a young woman recently arrived from Germany. She became his constant support and wise adviser. Their partnership lasted more than 60 years. Her death in March of this year was a blow from which he never recovered.John Yudkin, nutritionist: born London 8 August 1910; Professor of Physiology, Queen Elizabeth College, London 1945-54, Professor of Nutrition 1954-71 (Emeritus); Honorary Fellow, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1993; married 1933 Emily Himmelweit (died 1995; three sons); died London 12 July 1995.

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