Sinclair, Hugh Macdonald (nutritionist)

Reference: D HSDate: 1855-1994Extent: approx. 555 boxes

Hugh Sinclair

Hugh Macdonald Sinclair was born in 1910 and came from a well-connected family. He was educated at Winchester and Oriel College. He continued his studies at University College Hospital and obtained his Oxford DM in 1939. Sinclair was elected as university demonstrator and lecturer in biochemistry at Oxford, and a fellow of Magdalen College, in 1937.

Sinclair was the Director of the Oxford Nutrition Survey (ONS) from 1942-7. The ONS carried out surveys for the Government on a wide range of groups in the UK, such as pregnant women, students and manual workers. The surveys were used to help ensure that ration levels were sufficient for maintaining a healthy population. The ONS also carried out survey work in the British occupied areas of Germany and the Netherlands after the war where the people were suffering from malnutrition. The ONS became the Laboratory of Human Nutrition (LHN) in 1946.

Sinclair was appointed Reader in Human Nutrition at Oxford in 1951. However, by this time the study of nutrition as a separate subject was not viewed by many in the medical profession or academia to be necessary; it was felt all significant research on the subject had already been done. Sinclair lost his position at Oxford in 1958. The loss of Sinclair’s post was also contributed by other factors. One was his interest in the relative deficiency of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (EFAs) which he felt was the main cause of various ‘diseases of civilization’ such as heart disease. In 1956 he wrote a long and controversial letter outlining his views to The Lancet (6 April 1956, 381). He was widely disagreed with. We now know that Sinclair was ahead of the times and take for granted that EFAs play an important role in human nutrition. Another factor was Sinclair’s unfortunate manner of dealing with authority, something that many remember him for. Although he lost his readership he remained a fellow at Magdalen.

Sinclair spent the next few years teaching abroad and raising money to set up an independent nutrition institute. Largely with independent means, he set up the International Institute of Human Nutrition (IIHN) in 1972 and spent the rest of his life trying to raise funds for what he saw as a key research institute for the study of nutrition. Sinclair continued to research the role of EFAs and particularly studied population groups such as the Inuit people who had little instances of heart disease but had a diet high in fat. His interest in this area had first occurred during the World War II when he visited Canada to assist the Air Force in investigating snow-blindness. He made his initial observations about the Inuit population and their diet during his time in Canada and in 1976 when he gained funding to study the Inuits in Greenland. In 1979 Sinclair set out to prove the importance of EFAs by living off an Inuit diet for 100 days. He ate only seal and fish and tested his blood clotting times. This self-experiment was controversial, and he did not receive any external funding as no ethics committee would approve the diet. Sinclair believed that self-experimentation was key and that testing animals alone was not enough to further research on human nutrition. His results were never properly written up, but he did find that his clotting time extended greatly.

No other major research was undertaken by Sinclair although much work was carried out at the IIHN. He sat on many committees, attended a great number of conferences and advised on areas such as fluoridation of water and EFAs. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading (1970-80) and oversaw many students at Magdalen. By the 1970s his ideas on EFAs had become much more widely accepted and the importance of his contribution acknowledged which he greatly enjoyed. He died in 22 June 1990.

The Collection

This collection contains records of Hugh Macdonald Sinclair covering his early life, academic career and work on the importance of human nutrition.

It includes biographical and personal records, such as: papers from 1910-1936 that relate to his early life, his time as a student at university and his early career; papers from 1934-1990 relating to Lady Place, Sinclair’s home, such as plans and sale of contents; records of the Sinclair family from 1800s-1990, including accounts, memoirs, letters, diaries and photographs.

The collection includes items relating to his teaching and research, such as: reprints of published articles, conference papers, copies of speeches, records of his ‘Eskimo’ study in 1979, and papers relating to his research of Multiple Sclerosis and fluoridation; papers relating to his teaching at the University of Oxford and Magdelen College from 1934-1980 and the University of Reading from 1970-1980, including lecture notes and handouts; correspondences with other academics and industry professionals from 1930s-1990; several books edited or authored by Sinclair.

There are records from 1941-44 of the Oxford Nutrition Survey (ONS) relating to UK and overseas activities, including correspondence, notes, papers relating to clinical examinations, survey forms, cope-chat cards, test results, photographs, reports on individual studies, notebooks, Hollerith cards and notes on visits to Netherlands and Germany for Control Commission for Germany.

There are records from 1945-1958 of the Laboratory of Human Nutrition (LHN) including correspondence, memoranda and committee minutes, records of experiments and results and papers relating to closure.

There are records from 1972-1994 of the International Institute of Human Nutrition (IIHN) including annual accounts, correspondence, papers relating to staff, minutes, memoranda and staff notices.

There are records from 1972-1994 of the Association for the Study of Human Nutrition, later known as the International Nutrition Foundation (INF), including minutes, correspondence, and papers relating to its closure after Sinclair’s death.

There are records of Courtenay Nurseries from 1942-90 including accounts and correspondence.

This archive is split into nine parts.

More Information

Associated Collections

Papers of Jeanette Ewin (D DX1925)

Jeannette Valaire Ewin, PhD, FRSM (1937-2010) was an American writer with an academic background in nutrition. She studied at the School of Medicine, Maryland, and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the Department of Nutrition, Harvard University, where she studied under Dr D. Mark Hegsted. In 1996, Ewin was given a grant by David Horribin to write a biography of the nutritionist, Dr Hugh Macdonald Sinclair. This was published in 2001 by Oxford University Press as ‘Fine Wines and Fish Oils: The Life of Hugh MacDonald Sinclair.’

This archive contains the papers of Jeannette Ewin relating to the biography of Hugh Macdonald Sinclair. The collection includes correspondence files (1996-2004), interview transcripts (1996-1997), papers relating to the publishing of the biography (1996-1997) and photographs of Lady Place, Sinclair’s home (1996-1998).

A full description is available on our online database.

A handlist for this collection can be found here.

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