Captain John Boyd-Orr, CH, DSO, MC, FRS, Royal Army Medical Corps, born on 23 September 1880, was the third son of Robert Clark Orr, a Quarry Owner, and Annie Orr (nee Boyd), of Main Street, West Kilbride.


His siblings were Mary, Robert, William, James, Ann and Andrew.


The family home was well supplied with books, and his father was widely read in political, sociological and metaphysical subjects, as well as religion. When John was five years old, the family suffered a setback when a ship owned by Robert Orr was lost at sea. They had to sell their home in Kilmaurs, and moved to West Kilbride, a village on the North Ayrshire coast. The new house and environment were a great improvement on Kilmaurs, despite the family's reduced means. The major part of his upbringing took place in and around West Kilbride. He attended the village school until he was thirteen. Religion was then an important part of junior education in Scotland, and the school gave him a good knowledge of the Bible, which stayed with him for the rest of his life.


At thirteen, John won a bursary to Kilmarnock Academy. The new school was 20 miles from his home in West Kilbride, but his father owned a quarry about two miles from the Academy, and John was provided with accommodation nearby. His family cut short his education at the Academy because he was spending too much time in the company of the quarry workers (where he picked up a "wonderful vocabulary of swear words"), and he returned to the village school in West Kilbride where he continued until he was seventeen. There he became a pupil teacher at a salary of £10 for the first year, and £20 for the second. This was a particularly demanding time for him, as in addition to his teaching duties, and studying at home for his university and teacher-training qualifications, he also had to work every day for his father.

 

At 19, he won a Queen's Scholarship to study at a teacher training college in Glasgow, plus a bursary which paid for his lodgings. He also entered a three-year degree course in theology at the University, for which the fees were also covered.


As an undergraduate in Glasgow, he explored the interior of the city, usually at weekends. He was shocked by what he found in the poverty-stricken slums and tenements, which then made up a large part of the city. Rickets was obvious among the children, malnutrition was shown by many adults, and many aged were destitute. In his first teaching job after graduating MA in 1902, he was posted to a school in the slums. His first class was overcrowded, and the children ill-fed or actually hungry, inadequately clothed, visibly lousy and physically wretched. He resigned after a few days, realising that he could not teach children in such a condition, and that there was nothing he could do to relieve their misery. After working for a few months in his father's business, he taught for three years at Kyleshill School in Saltcoats, also a poor area, but less squalid than the slums of Glasgow. The knowledge and skills he learned by studying for, and teaching, were to prove very useful in his later career. However his heart was not in teaching, and he returned to the University to study biology, a subject he had always been interested in since childhood. As a precaution, he entered simultaneously for a degree in medicine.


He found the university to be a very stimulating environment. Diarmid Noel Paton (son of the artist Joseph Noel Paton) was Regius Professor of Physiology, and Edward Provan Cathcart head of Physiological Chemistry, both men of outstanding scientific ability. He was impressed by Samuel Gemmill, Professor of Clinical Medicine, a philosopher whose deep thinking on social affairs also influenced Boyd Orr's approach to such questions. Half-way through his medical studies, his savings ran out. Reluctant to ask his family for support, he bought a block of tenanted flats on mortgage, with the help of a bank overdraft, and used the rents to pay for the rest of his studies. On graduating, he sold the property for a small profit. He graduated BSc. in 1910, and MB, ChB in 1912, at the age of 32, placing sixth in a year of 200 students. Two years later, in 1914, he graduated MD with honours, receiving the Bellahouston Gold Medal for the most distinguished thesis of the year.


In order to pay off his bank overdraft, he took a position as a ship's surgeon on a ship trading between Scotland and West Africa, resigning after four months, when he had repaid the debt. He accepted the offer of a two-year Carnegie research scholarship, to work in E.P. Cathcart's laboratory. The work included studying the energy expenditure of military recruits in training.


On 1 April 1914, Boyd Orr took charge of a new research institute in Aberdeen, a project of a joint committee for research into animal nutrition of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture and Aberdeen University.


On the outbreak of war he was given leave to join the Army, and asked his former colleague Cathcart to help him obtain a medical commission in an infantry unit overseas. Cathcart thought he would be more useful at home, and his first commission was in a special civilian section of the Royal Army Medical Corps dealing with sanitation. Several divisions of non-conscripted recruits were in training in emergency camps at home, some of them in very poor sanitary conditions. Boyd Orr was able to push through schemes for improvement in hygiene, preventing much sickness. After 18 months he was posted as Medical Officer to an infantry unit, the 1st Sherwood Foresters. He spent much of his time in shell holes, patching up the many wounded. His courage under fire and devotion to duty were recognised by the award of a Military Cross after the Battle of the Somme, and of the Distinguished Service Order after Passchendaele. He also made arrangements for the battalion's diet to be supplemented by vegetables collected from local deserted gardens and fields. As a result, unlike other units, he did not need to send any of the men in his medical charge to hospital. He also prevented his men getting trench foot by personally ensuring they were fitted with boots a size larger than usual. Worried that he was losing touch with medical and nutritional advances, he asked to be transferred to the navy, where he thought he would have more time available for reading and research. The army was reluctant to let him go, but agreed, since he was still a "civilian surgeon". He spent a busy three months in the naval hospital at Chatham, studying hard while practicing medicine in the wards, before being posted to HMS Furious. On board ship his medical duties were light, enabling him to do a great deal of reading. He was later recalled to study army food requirements.


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James Boyd-Orr.

Post War Career.

John Boyd-Orr.

 Captain John Boyd-Orr

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The family home at Holland Green, Fenwick Road, Kilmaurs.


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