Lives of the fellows

John Yudkin

b.8 August 1910 d.12 July 1995
BSc Lond(1929) BA(1931) MA(1934) PhD Cantab(1935) FRSC(1938) MB BChir Lond(1938) MD(1943) MRCP(1946) FIBiol(1958) FRCP(1975)

John Yudkin was by temperament an innovator and teacher, rather than a conformer. In 1945 he arrived to take the chair of physiology at Queen Elizabeth College (now Kings College), London, with a background different from the conventional medical academic, and with different objectives. He had been born in the East End of London of Russian Jewish parents. His father died when he was seven years old, so he had to fund his own education by a series of scholarships. He went to Chelsea College, London, then obtained a BSc in physiology and biochemistry at Cambridge, and then a PhD. He supported himself and his wife by teaching undergraduates in his spare time while he obtained a medical degree, and then began research at the Dunn nutrition laboratory in Cambridge. During the war he served with the RAMC as a pathologist to the West African Forces in Sierra Leone.

He brought to his department three characteristics unusual for the time; a firm conviction that nutrition was an important discipline in its own right and not merely a subsection of biochemistry; a willingness to descend from the ivory tower of academe to join in public debate; and an ability to raise money. With these qualities he established at Queen Elizabeth College in 1954 the first BSc and MSc degrees in nutrition in the country. He also recognized that social and culinary factors were important in nutrition. It is at least as necessary to understand why people do and do not eat a particular food as to understand its metabolism once it has been ingested. Every nutritionist is in his debt for providing this insight.

To the lay public Yudkin was chiefly known for his scientifically sound but very readable books on slimming, such as This slimming business (London, MacGibbon & Kee, 1958), and in particular for his advocacy of carbohydrate restriction. He knew that if you did not eat a slice of bread you were unlikely to eat the butter and jam which you would have had on the bread and reasoned that if you have to restrict only one of the energy providing macronutrients you are likely, by restricting carbohydrate, to achieve a significant reduction in energy intake (and hence achieve weight loss) without loss of important nutrients. This idea was effective in causing weight loss without calorie counting, but failed to gain acceptance by most nutritional scientists in view of the reasons for restricting fat, rather than carbohydrate. Later Yudkin switched more specifically to target the nutritional disadvantages of sugar, and produced his excellently written book Pure, white and deadly (London, Davis-Poynter, 1972, revised 1986), which also exposed the ‘dirty tricks’ which are used to influence customers in the highly competitive food industry.

He retired as professor of nutrition in 1971, but continued for the next two decades to work for the causes he held dear. He was a staunch supporter of Israel, and in 1993 was delighted to be elected an honorary fellow of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Those of us who were associated with reports advocating reduction in the fat content of the diet in the UK could expect to receive a courteously worded note asking why evidence implicating sucrose had not received equal prominence in the report. He was a vigorous debater, scornful of academic snobs who could not bring themselves to accept, for example, that experts in nutrition needed to know something about cooking, but on a personal level he was always genial and kind, even to those who did not share his views.

He married Emily Himmelweit in 1933 and they had three sons.

J Garrow

[, 1995,311,505; The Independent, 25 July 1995; The Daily Telegraph, 19 July 1995; The Guardian, 15 July 1995; The Times, 17 July 1995]

(Volume X, page 535)

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