Wilbur Olin Atwater
Biography of Wilbur Olin Atwater
Wilbur Olin Atwater was a pioneer in the study of human nutrition and metabolism. He grew up in the New England area and first studied for two years in the University of Vermont before coming to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Class of '65. In 1868, Atwater's interest in civil engineering and agricultural chemistry led him to enrol in Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School, where he analyzed agricultural fertilizers for specific mineral content. After obtaining his PhD in agricultural chemistry in 1869, Atwater spent two years in Leipzig and Berlin, where he visited agricultural experiment stations and made Agricultural Chemistry his specialty.
Atwater also spent time travelling throughout Scotland, Rome, and Naples, where he reported his findings in local newspapers distributed where he lived back in the United States.
Atwater later returned to the United States to teach as Professor of Chemistry, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1871-1873. For one term in 1873, he was Professor of Chemistry, Maine State College, Orono. Later in 1873 he became Instructor in Chemistry, Wesleyan University, being elevated to professor the following year. 1875-1877 he was Director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the first of its kind in this country. From 1888 to 1892 he was director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Storrs, Connecticut. In 1888 he founded, and until 1891, was Director of the Office of Experiment Stations, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
From 1894 to 1903 Atwater was Special Agent in charge of Nutrition Investigations provided for by Congress in connection with this Department and since 1903, Chief of Nutrition Investigations, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After protracted negotiations Atwater received government funds to build a large respiration calorimeter for studying human metabolism. The calorimeter was developed in collaboration with the physics professor Edward Bennett Rosa (1873-1921)
With annual costs exceeding ten thousand dollars, this piece of equipment was considered a dream project for the nineteenth century. The calorimeter aided studies in food analysis, dietary evolution, work energy consumption, and digestible foods. It measured the human metabolism balance by analyzing the heat produced and metabolic rate by a person performing certain physical activities. With this machine, the dynamics of metabolism could be quantified and the balance between food intake and energy output could be measured. It was so efficient that when a weighed amount of alcohol was burned in it, 99,8 of the carbon dioxide was recovered along with 99,9 percent of the heat. Starting in 1897 human experiments were carried out in collaboration with Francis Gano Benedict (1870-1987), also a chemistry professor at Wesleyan.
The results from Atwater’s calorimetry study influenced many areas of American life. Most importantly, the calorimeter was a great influence to the growing awareness of the food calorie as a unit of measure both in terms of consumption and metabolism. Atwater reported on the weight of the calorie as a means of which to measure the efficiency of a diet. He stated that different types of food produced different amounts of energy. He stressed the importance of a cheap and efficient diet that included more proteins, beans, and vegetables in place of carbohydrates.
Atwater also studied the effect of alcohol on the body. His findings showed that humans generated heat from alcohol much like it would generate heat from a carbohydrate. At a time where the Scientific Temperance Federation and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) doubted the nutritional value of alcohol, Atwater proved that alcohol could be oxidized in the body and used as fuel for the human motor. Information gained from Atwater’s experiments was used by the liquor trade in the promotion of alcohol. After completing his study, Atwater concluded that Americans consumed too much fat and sweets and did not exercise enough.
Before he died in 1907, Atwater had completed more than 500 energy-balance experiments.
Atwater was a member of numerous learned bodies at home and abroad: American Chemical Society, American Physiological Society, and Washington Academy of Sciences; Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science; Member Société Chimique de Paris; Deutsche chemische Gesellschaft; Associate Member Société d'Hygiène alimentaire et de l'Alimentation rationelle de l'Homme; Corresponding Member Société Royale des Sciences Médicales et Naturelles de Bruxelles; Foreign Member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Agriculture; Corresponding Member of the Russian Imperial Military Academy of Medicine. In 1904 he received the honorary degree of L.L.D. from the University of Vermont.
On August 26, 1874, Atwater married Miss Marcia Woodard, of Bangor, Maine. They had two children, a daughter and a son.
Atwater published over 150 titles.