Fifty years ago, one of Scotland's outstanding citizens died. In his lifetime, John Boyd Orr changed how governments acted and he pioneered collective solutions to worldwide problems. He met, knew, and influenced every important world leader. His advice was sought by nations across the globe. As well as being made a lord in the United Kingdom, he received the Legion D'Honneur in France, was given a medal of honour by the International Federation of Agricultural Food Producers, and was a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He was chancellor and rector of Glasgow University, first director general of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, creator and first director of the internationally-renowned Rowett Institute (animal and human nutrition a speciality), originator of the World Food Council, and first president of the Nutrition Society.
When World War One interrupted his scientific work, he proved to be a brave and extraordinarily inventive officer. He won the DSO and MC with bar serving with the Sherwood Foresters at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. But he also kept his troops fitter and healthier by encouraging them to seek fresh vegetables from disused farmland to make daily broth. He also gave them boots of generous size to combat trench foot disease.
Academically, he was no slouch. He won scholarships as a schoolboy, and graduated from Glasgow University in 1902 with a Master of Arts degree. This sent him teaching where he acquired bookkeeping and accountancy teaching certificates so he could help students with practical skills. Dispirited by teaching, he returned to Glasgow University to graduate as a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery in 1912 and gained Doctor of Medicine with Honours in 1914, receiving the Bellahouston Medal for the outstanding thesis of the year.
Boyd Orr published at least 30 vitally important research papers and some nine renowned publications such as Feeding the People in Wartime
and The White Man's Dilemma
. He carried out the world's first food, health and income survey, to prove that nearly half of the UK's population in 1933 did not have sufficient income to allow a beneficial diet. (The government of the day battled to disprove his report and finished by giving him a knighthood.) His survey was replicated in some 20 other countries. He is credited with inspiring Lord Woolton to develop the diet plan, including free school milk, that left a generation healthier after World War Two than before.
He fought for years for countries to work together to provide enough food for an expanding population. As a result, he sought to engage politicians, from Joseph Stalin to Clement Attlee to Dwight Eisenhower. His proposal for a World Food Plan ended, to his chagrin, as the post-war Marshall Plan that benefitted Europe only, but the principle of international cooperation to solve hunger has survived.
In later years, he devoted his attentions to world peace, starting and encouraging organisations seeking world government. He travelled the globe – the US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Latin America, the Middle East to name but some – in pursuit of this goal. Some thought his views naive but, as he famously pointed out to Americans, the way to defeat Marxism was to offer a better solution. Communism in developing nations was hunger becoming articulate.
Stepping back from public service, he amassed a solid income from the stock market, took on a clutch of company directorships, and, until his death, ran a substantial farm/estate in the rich landscapes near Edzell in Angus.
While many Scots have made important contributions to the world as inventors, scientists and artists, it is hard to argue against Lord Boyd Orr of Brechin Mearns (as he became) being in a class of his own. Spending a lifetime seeking to apply the resources of modern science to the elimination of world poverty, hunger and preventable disease shows a staggering ambition that only a person of remarkable intellect could envisage. These, he believed, were among the crucial reasons for war and, unless mastered, would lead inevitably to disaster.
Obviously, Boyd Orr will be appropriately commemorated in his native land. We are pretty good at monuments. There is the modest little 60-metre high structure in Edinburgh's Princes Street that shelters the marble statue of Sir Walter Scott. The Robert the Bruce Statue at Bannockburn, the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge, 60 known statues, busts, fountains and buildings for Robert Burns, and, more recently, the three-metre tall effigy of Donald Dewar (father of the modern Scottish Parliament) that sits in Glasgow's Buchanan Street. Sir Alexander Fleming, a fellow Nobel Laureate, has memorials in spots ranging from Darvel to Barcelona (penicillin was great for injured matadors). Boyd Orr? Not a lot.
Glasgow University built the Boyd Orr general science building and houses a centre for population and ecosystem health. Aberdeen University has now incorporated the Rowett Institute into its campus and created a Lord Boyd Orr House at its sister campus in Qatar. There are Boyd Orr avenues, crescents, drives, and roads scattered across the land. Aberdeen even has a Boyd Orr Close. In 2016, his face loomed from a Royal Mail stamp. The Boyd Orr blog still emanates from his Centre of Epidemiology. The National Galleries have, in storage, a bust by Benno Schotz. Unless you count the brutalist architecture of the building at Glasgow University, nary a sign of a massive monument.
Which is why my interest was sparked by a report in a local Ayrshire newspaper about a plan for a new memorial. Aged five, John Boyd Orr's family moved to West Kilbride from Kilmaurs (where his birthplace is still someone's family home), and John went to the village school. He was well taught and at 13 won a scholarship to Kilmarnock Academy. For what seems the only time in his life, John then went off the rails. Rooming in the house of a worker at his father's quarry, he spent much more time with the quarrymen than at school and gained, to quote from his autobiography, a wonderful vocabulary of swear words and a wretched end of term school report. After four months, he was hustled back to West Kilbride village school.
None of this has stopped Kilmarnock Academy from proclaiming that, uniquely with Eton, it has produced two Nobel Laureates (Alexander Fleming is the other). To bowdlerise John F Kennedy and before him Tacitus, triumph tends to have a thousand fathers...
Back safely in West Kilbride, the young Boyd Orr buckled down to learning as a teacher pupil at the local school, guided specifically by an inspiring headmaster John Lyons who, to quote his pupil, 'was an excellent teacher and all three of his teacher pupils went on to have distinguished careers'. It was from West Kilbride that John won the scholarship that launched him on his first spell doing classics at Glasgow University.
After graduating, he had an unhappy period as a teacher in Glasgow where he was sickened trying to educate children suffering from malnutrition and disease caused by poverty. A second spell teaching in Saltcoats did not last long either as he struggled to accept the pointlessness of traditionally educating children whose poverty meant they would need to leave school at 14, or earlier if possible, to help put food on the table. 'I loved the kids but I hated teaching them,' he wrote. He recognised, also, that it would be through science and medecine that he might make a difference and headed back to university.
A good few years ago, West Kilbride decided to commemorate its famous son with a pretty little garden in the Main Street not far from the building that had been the family home. There is a plaque amongst the flowers and bushes that surround a central tree. In 1917, another group of locals dreamed of a more impressive reminder – a metre-high granite boulder with an inlaid bronze plaque. This year, as an Ayrshire newspaper reported, their idea was given wings by winning a substantial award from a local windfarm to add to two private donations. £5,600 became available to build Boyd Orr a sturdy tribute on a grassy plot facing the local library and looking down on the Main Street.
Villages being villages, the course of true tribute has not run smoothly. Initially, the boulder was to go in the memorial garden. The good people who maintain the garden, and much of the green space and local floral decoration, were not inclined to move their central tree in favour of the boulder. So the boulder folk found the site beside the library. Currently, the council are being asked to carry out the placing of the great rock and their decision is awaited. It would be wrong to suggest that the village is split on the matter but fair to record that feathers have been ruffled and remain so.
Whatever the final outcome, little West Kilbride (population 4,700) has twice heeded the advice of its most famous son. 'We have created great statues to soldiers and sailors for the victories they gained in wars in which millions died. It would be more reasonable to erect monuments to men like Pasteur, Jenner and Simpson and to surgeons like Sir William McEwan and medical men who have saved many millions'.
David Donald is a former journalist and magazine editor