Lives of the fellows

John Conrad Waterlow

b.13 June 1916 d.19 October 2010
CMG(1970) MB ChB Cantab(1942) MD(1948) MRCP(1961) ScD(1966) FRCP(1969) Hon DSc West Indies(1978) FRS(1982) Hon DSc Reading(1984)

John Conrad Waterlow was professor of human nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). In the course of a distinguished career, his pioneering research into the scientific basis and treatment of childhood nutrition was to save many thousands of young lives throughout the world and win international acclaim.

Born in London, he was the son of Sir Sydney Philip Perigal Waterlow, KCMG, and great-grandson of Sir Sydney Waterlow, 1st Baronet, who bequeathed Waterlow Park in Highgate, north London, to provide ‘a garden for the gardenless’. His father was in the diplomatic service and served as British Ambassador to Siam (now Thailand), Abyssinia, Bulgaria and Greece. John was largely brought up in the family’s country home in Wiltshire but he became a seasoned traveller at an early age. His father (a member of the Bloomsbury Group) was also an author and translated several of the classics. It was not uncommon for literary figures such as E M Forster and Virginia Woolf to visit, thus providing a lively and stimulating environment for him to grow up in. His mother, Helen Margery née Eckhard came from a Manchester family with a German immigrant background and her father Gustav, a merchant, was known for his philanthropy towards the arts.

Educated at Eton, where he was Keeper of the Wall, he won a scholarship to study classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. In his last year at school he was inspired by a lecture on leprosy in West Africa to change to medicine and physiology. Matriculating in 1939, he briefly joined the Communist Party with the intention of going to Spain but the party boss told him to finish his medical degree. His training at the London Hospital in obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics was disrupted by having to give assistance during the Blitz but he managed to qualify in 1942.

He was then sent to Iraq by the Medical Research Council (MRC)’s military personnel committee under Ben Platt to study the effects of heat on the soldiers in Basra who were guarding the oilfields. At the end of the Second World War, Platt, later to become professor of nutrition at the LSHTM, was put in charge of a new MRC human nutrition unit and, stressing his view that ‘nutrition will be the problem of the future’, invited Waterlow to join him.

In 1945 he went to the Caribbean on behalf of the Colonial Office to examine the high mortality rates of infants and young children in the region. He gained a lifelong attachment to the region from the year he spent in Trinidad, Tobago, and Guyana. While there he discovered that the symptoms of malnutrition many children suffered from closely resembled those displayed by African children suffering from kwashiorkor. He invented his own micro-respirometer for examining minute (2mg) tissue samples. It was an extremely sensitive instrument and he used it to show that liver enzyme activity was greatly reduced in the form of malnutrition found in the Caribbean children. He then proceeded to carry out similar studies in African field stations, particularly in Gambia and Basutoland (now Lesotho).

The University of the West Indies was founded in Jamaica in 1948 and, two years later, Waterlow was appointed a part-time physiology lecturer while continuing his MRC research. In the early days he had a wooden hut for a lab and was aided by one technician. In 1954 he managed to persuade the MRC to finance a Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU). He became director and, in 1965, it opened with proper laboratories and a 16 bed ward for severely malnourished children. During the 16 years he spent there, the TMRU attracted many leading researchers and international funding. Using what became known as the ‘Waterlow index’ he was able to rate the extent of infant malnutrition and provided an ability to diagnose it before any symptoms had begun to show. Eventually the research showed that the kwashiorkor was not caused by protein deficiency but by a lack of protective antioxidents in the children’s diets and with this discovery a treatment plan was devised that was to save many lives.

In 1970 he returned to the UK to become professor of human nutrition at the LSHTM, a post vacant due to the death of Ben Platt. During the 12 years he spent in the post he revamped the research focus and established a clinical nutrition and metabolism unit. He did not waver from his initial concerns about world food shortages and, apparently, took the editors of the journal Public health nutrition to task for concentrating too much on the diseases of overindulgence in affluent countries and too little on childhood malnutrition due to poverty and injustice.

Recognised as a leading authority on human nutrition, he served on numerous committees and groups including those of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and of the World Health Organization . He was advisor on nutrition for the DHSS and a consultant for the Ministry of Overseas Development, writing several reports for them which he claimed had ‘absolutely no effect’. After his retirement in 1982, he became chair of the Army Personnel Unit of the MRC and president of the Nutrition Society. Made CMG in 1969, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1982.

He published numerous scientific papers including many on protein-energy malnutrition (PEM). Among his books Protein turnover in mammalian tissues and in the whole body with P J Garlick and D J Millward (Amsterdam, North Holland Publishing Company, 1978) and Protein-Energy malnutrition (London, Hodder, 1992) are still highly influential and have both been recently reissued.

Fond of the outdoor life, he had inherited his parents enthusiasm for walking. A keen mountain climber, he organised three expeditions to the Columbian Andes and, during one of them, carried out experiments on himself to test the effect of altitude on a person with a low potassium diet. He nearly died and had to be transported by a mule down the mountain in a coma, immediately recovering on being given potassium. He was also a voracious reader, a fascinating speaker and greatly enjoyed wine and good food.

He married Angela Pauline Cecil née Gray in 1939. She was the daughter of Geoffrey Wyndham Gray, a mining engineer, and was a gifted artist. She predeceased him in 2006. He was survived by their children, Sarah, Oliver and Dick, and his close companion and long time colleague (from TMRU days), Joan Stephen.

RCP editor

[The Telegraph www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/science-obituaries/8108436/Professor-John-Waterlow.html; The Independent www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/professor-john-waterlow-physiologist-celebrated-for-his-achievements-in-the-field-of-childhood-malnutrition-2146128.html;The Lancet www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)62252-0/fulltext; The Guardian www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/15/john-waterlow-obituary; Nature www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v65/n1/full/ejcn2010271a.html; Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Waterlow]

(Volume XII, page web)

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