Isabella Leitch

Nutritional physiologist

A sepia photograph of two women wearing early twentieth-century suits and hats, sitting outside on a wooden table reading a newspaper titled 'Suffragette'

Isabella Leitch (right), possibly with one of her sisters, reading Suffragette newspaper (issue March 1913) (Photograph kindly provided by Drs P and J Henderson)

  • BORN 13th February 1890, Grantown-on-Spey, Moray, Scotland
  • DIED 21st July 1980, Warwick, Queensland, Australia
  • WORKED Copenhagen, Denmark; Aberdeen, Scotland
  • HONOURS OBE June 1949; Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Aberdeen University 1965. A building at the Rowett Institute of Research in Bucksburn, Aberdeen, was named the Leitch Building after her, though it was earmarked for demolition by 2017 when the Rowett moved into new premises in Aberdeen.
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Minerva Scientifica Birthday Celebrations (Feb 2021)

We are very grateful to Dr Leitch’s grandson and his wife, Drs P and J Henderson, Canberra, for providing photographs, and for assisting in the accuracy of this entry.

Artistic Connections

Thanks to her family, we now know that Isabella Leitch liked going to Chamber music concerts and musical theatre, but most of all, she enjoyed going to the ballet, especially when her grandchildren accompanied her. Several members of subsequent generations of her family did indeed become career ballet dancers.


We are still working on music to reflect her life. It will appear here soon.


School at Peterhead Academy, from which she was awarded a bursary in 1905; MA in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy from Aberdeen University 1911; BSc in Zoology from Aberdeen University 1914; DSc from Aberdeen University 1919.

A black and white photograph of a large brick building with two floors and a long string of 10-15 windows along the front. The building looks like a university campus or a school.

Image of Rowett Research Institute from 1927 (Credit: John Edward Iddings’ Lantern Slide Collection, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library)


Researcher in zoophysiology
From 1914-1918, she was awarded a Carnegie Grant to carry out research at Copenhagen University in genetics, and in plant and animal physiology.  The various papers she produced there earned her the award of DSc from Aberdeen University.

Isabella Leitch had a working knowledge of several languages, and between 1919-1923, earned a small income as a translator.

Temporary Librarian
She started to work from 1923 as a temporary librarian at the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen which had been set up in 1913 as a centre for research into animal nutrition.

Research Assistant
From 1923-1929, along with her work in the Library, she was assigned to carry out research on iodine, and with the Director of the Rowett, John Boyd Orr, she co-authored papers on iodine in agriculture and in nutrition.

Personal Assistant to John Boyd Orr
Boyd Orr recognised the abilities of Isabella Leitch, and she became his assistant. Several of his publications involved her input. She continued in this role, alongside her job in the Bureau of Animal Nutrition, until Boyd Orr left the Rowett in 1945.

Journal editor, Bureau Director, and Nutrition Specialist
In 1929, the Bureau (later the Commonwealth Bureau) of Animal Nutrition was formed, based within the premises at the Rowett, and Isabella Leitch moved to work there. By 1931, she had founded and become editor of the publication Nutrition abstracts and reviews. She continued to take charge of the Bureau and this journal until she retired in 1960. As well as collating and abstracting the work of others, she compiled her own research papers and technical reports. Her language skills meant that she looked to include contributions from all over the world, and the journal became internationally respected. She herself earned a reputation as a nutrition specialist, and served on committees and presented papers at national and international conferences instigated by bodies including the United Nations.

Author and Abstractor of journal articles
After her retirement, she continued to produce scientific papers and to contribute to Nutrition abstracts and reviews into her late 80s.

Front cover of Food, Health and Income. (Image credit: From copy available for sale)

Scientific Achievement

  • Isabella Leitch worked with at least 2 eminent scientists while in Copenhagen:
    • physiologist Professor August Krogh (Nobel prize winner) – she published a paper in 1916 on haemoglobins under his guidance.
    • geneticist, Wilhelm Johannsen, who coined the word, ‘gene’ – her study with him resulted in her 1921 paper on a mutation in a bean plant.
  • Boyd Orr delegated to Isabella Leitch the collection and preparation of data for his politically explosive report, Food, health and income (1936), which has unhappy parallels today. Its findings stated that nutrition of the British population depended on income. In the lowest income group surveyed, total food consumption was low and “includes mainly cheap suppliers of energy and therefore cheap satisfiers of hunger, e.g., potatoes, bread, margarine”.
    Leitch also supervised the follow-up publication (1955) on Family diet and health from 1937-1939 from the Rowett, usually called the Carnegie Survey. This study confirmed that poorer children were indeed likely to have poorer health. Data from the Carnegie Survey was incorporated in the 1940 report by Boyd Orr and David Lubbock Feeding the People in War-time which became the Government’s food policy, which, despite rationing, seemed to give everyone an adequate and balanced diet.
  • Feeding of Camels.(Image Credit: Copy held in National Library of Scotland)

    Leitch drew on data from the Carnegie Survey to produce Growth and health (1951), published in the British journal of Nutrition. Drawing on experiments on growing pigs, starved early in life, then fed normally, which did not develop normal skeleton and muscle, but, with later feeding, put on fat,  she hypothesised that humans might have similar outcomes. Those who were malnourished in early life were likely to have shorter legs, rather than a smaller than expected body size, and were more likely to suffer from obesity later in life.  She distinguished between small babies who catch up in weight early on, and babies born within a normal weight range, who suffer malnutrition in childhood. In 1990, studies by the epidemiologist, D P Barker, came up with the very similar ‘Barker hypothesis’ which had been anticipated by Isabella Leitch nearly 40 years earlier.

  • In her role as Director of the Bureau of Animal Nutrition she was often involved in some intriguing detective work, like the enquiry from Somaliland concerning the nutrition of camels. She compared data on camel diets with the diet of cattle and formulated a possible improvement for the sick camels, including the need for them to have adequate salt to help them survive periods without water.
  • Her experience as Editor of Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews taught her of the importance of producing high quality research reviews. She believed in heeding the relevance of the work of historical scientists, and ensuring this work was cited when appropriate.
  • One of the best known of her publications, The Physiology of Human Pregnancy, was co-authored with F E Hytten, and published in 1964. Her work on human pregnancy and the importance of a good diet for mother and foetus made a measurable difference to maternal and child health.

Image of Christabel Pankhurst (1912) (Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Attribution: In public domain)

Did You Know?

  • Leitch was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, and was active in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Aberdeen. She attended meetings addressed by the Pankhursts in London and elsewhere. One time she was ready to act as a decoy for Christabel Pankhurst, whom she resembled, if Christabel had had to make a quick getaway.
  • She worked closely with two scientists who were awarded Nobel prizes. First, in Copenhagen, August Krogh was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1920 for his studies on blood flow in capillaries. Then in 1949, John Boyd Orr received the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his efforts to secure world peace through the equitable distribution of food resources.
  • Her book, The Physiology of Human Pregnancy, albeit in a later edition, was a medical textbook used by her grandson when he studied obstetrics and gynaecology in Aberdeen.
  • In her spare time, she was a keen hillwalker in the north-east of Scotland. She also loved her garden, and was immensely proud of her 92 rose bushes!
  • Late in life, accompanied by her daughter, she flew to the USA on Concorde. She liked to say that in her lifetime she had gone from horse and cart to supersonic travel.
A black and white portrait photograph of a woman, in a cream-coloured cardboard mount. The woman has short, light, curly hair and is wearing a grey suit.

Photograph of Isabella Leitch (kindly provided by Drs P and J Henderson)

An Inspiring Woman

From her early days in the suffragette movement, Isabella Leitch was always a vehement supporter of women’s rights. Maybe because she was a single parent, she was turned down for scientific posts soon after her return to the UK. With persistence, and support from her mother and sisters, she was finally able to pursue and excel in the career which she loved.

Leitch valued competent research, but could not bear to see what she believed to be sloppy work. She did not hesitate to speak out where she felt strongly, and this was not always appreciated by those who suffered her sharp tongue, being described by one victim as “that acidulous woman!”

Social equality was one of Isabella Leitch’s passions. She saw how poverty affected the lives and development of children, and believed that everyone deserved an income which would enable them to afford a healthy diet.

Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews, the journal which Leitch founded, is still published, and is now allied with the publications of what was the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, now CAB International (CABI), covering all areas of agriculture and the environment.