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Wilbur Olin Atwater

Born  1844
Died  1907

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Chemical physiologist, Born May 3, 1844, Johnsburgh, N.Y.; died September 22, 1907, Middletown, Connecticut.

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.


  • Kenneth J. Carpenter:
    The Life and Times of W.O. Atwater.
    In The 1993 W.O. Atwater Centennial Memorial Lecture.
    The Journal of Nutrition, Berkeley, California, September 1994, 124: 1707-1714.
  • Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia
  • Susan Lederer:
    A History of American Bodies.
    New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2007.
  • S. Welsh:
    Atwater to the present: evolution of nutrition education.
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 (9): 1799-1807.
  • W. J. Darby:
    Contributions of Atwater and USDA to knowledge of nutrient requirements.
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 ( supplement): 1733-1737.
  • G. F. Combs:
    Celebration of the past: nutrition at USDA.
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 (9 Suppelement): 1728-1732.
  • B. L. Nichols:
    Atwater and USDA nutrition research and service: a prologue of the past century.
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 (9 Suppelement): 1718-1727.
  • C. A. Galbraith:
    Wilbur Olin Atwater.
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 (9 Suppelement): 1715-1717.
  • K. J. Carpenter:
    The 1993 W. O. Atwater Centennial Memorial Lecture. The life and times of W. O. Atwater (1844-1907).
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1994, 124 (9 Suppelement): 1707-1714.
  • W. O. Atwater and F. G. Benedict:
    An experimental inquiry regarding the nutritive value of alcohol. 1902.
    Obesity Research, Silver Spring, MD, May 1993, 1 (3): 228-244.
  • E. M. Widdowson:
    Atwater: a personal tribute from the United Kingdom.
    The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Bethesda, MD, May 1987, 45 (5): 898-904.
  • P. J. Pauly:
    The struggle for ignorance about alcohol: American physiologists, Wilbur Olin Atwater, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
    Bulletin of the history of medicine, 1990, 64 (3): 366-92.
  • Keys:
    Overweight, obesity, coronary heart disease, and mortality: the W.O. Atwater Memorial Lecture 1980.
    Progress in Clinical and Biological Research, New York, 1981, 67: 31-46.
  • W. J. Darby:
    Nutrition science: an overview of American genius.
    Nutrition Reviews, Washington DC, January 1976, 34 (1):1-14.
  • J. G. Harrar:
    .O. Atwater Memorial Lecture. Nutrition and numbers in the Third World.
    Nutrition Reviews, April 1976, 32 (4): 97-104.
  • P.W . Wilson:
    Biological nitrogen fixation – early American style (Samuel W. Johnson and Wilbur O. Atwater). Bacteriological Reviews, December 1963, 27: 405-416.
  • L. A. Maynard:
    Wilbur O. Atwater--a biographical sketch (May 3, 1844-October 6, 1907).
    The Journal of Nutrition, September 1962, 78: 3-9.
  • W. O Atwater:
    The Pecuniary Economy of Food.
    The Century Magazine, New York, January 1888, 35 (3): 437-446.
  • W. O Atwater:
    Foods and Beverages.
    The Century. Illustrated Monthly Magazine, New York, May 1888, 36 (1): 135-140.
  • W. O Atwater:
    What We should Eat.
    The Century; a popular quarterly, New York, June 1888, 36 (2): 257-265.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    Fertilizers, cooperative experimenting as a means of studying the effects of fertilizers and the feeding capacities of plants. 1892.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    Foods, nutritive value and cost. U. S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers' Bulletin No. 23. Washington : Government Printing Office, 1894.
  • W. O Atwater and C. D. Woods:
    Studies of dietaries. In: Storrs Station Report for 1894: 174-204.
  • W. O Atwater and C. D. Woods:
    Food Investigations and Publications. Storrs Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 15, 1895.
  • W. O Atwater and C. D. Woods:
    Studies of dietaries. In: Storrs Station Report for 1895: 129-174.
  • Charles E. Wait and Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    Dietary studies at the University of Tennessee in 1895. 1895.
  • W. O Atwater:
    On the Nutritive Value of Fish.
    Science, November 6, 1880, 1 (20): 19: 233-234
  • W.O. Atwater:
    Methods and results of investigations on the chemistry and economy of food. 1895.
  • W. O Atwater and A. P. Bryant:
    Studies of dietaries. In: Storrs Station Report for 1896: 117-158.
  • W. O Atwater and C. D. Woods:
    The chemical Composition of American food materials. 1896.
  • Winthrop E. Stone and W. O. Atwater:
    Dietary studies at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, in 1895. 1896.
  • H. B. Gibson, S. Calvert, and D. W. May:
    Dietary studies at the University of Missouri in 1895, and data relating to bread and meat consumption in Missouri.
    With comments by W. O. Atwater and Charles D. Woods. 1896.
  • W. O Atwater and Charles D. Woods:
    Dietary Studies with Reference to the Food of the Negro in Alabama in 1895 and 1896.
    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Experiment Stations, Bulletin 38. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1897.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater and Charles Ford Langworthy
    A Digest of metabolism experiments, in which the balance of income and outgo was determined. Bulltin No 5, Washington DC: US Department of Agriculture, Office of experiment stations. 1897.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    Dietary Studies in Chicago in 1895 and 1896, conducted with the co-operation of Jane Addams and Caroline L. Hunt, of Hull House, reported by W. O. Atwater and A. P. Bryant. 1898.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater and Charles D. Woods
    Dietary Studies in New York city in 1895 and 1896.
    Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    The Nutritive Value of Alcohol.
    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1900, 101: 605
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater:
    Alcohol Physiology and Temperance Reform.
    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1900.
  • Wilbur Olin Atwater et Alfred Charles True:
    Principles of nutrition and nutritive value of food. 1902.
  • W. O Atwater:
    Coefficients of digestibility and availability of the nutrients of food.
    Proceedings of the American Physiology Society, 1909, 30: 14-19.

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