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Nutrition and Public Health

In 1934 the Health Committee of the LoN was preparing a three-year programme. E. Burnet and W.R. Aykroyd were entrusted with a series of enquiries in different countries - the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics - on institutions linked to nutrition policies.[1] Burnet and Aykroyd’s report emphasised the importance of international economic conditions and income differences across social groups in relation to adequate nutrition. “The general problem of nutrition as it presents itself today is that of harmonising economic and public health development”.[2]

The report by Burnet and Aykroyd was published at a time when the social problems of housing and nutrition were definitely occupying the foremost position in public health. Continuing the work carried out by the Rome and Berlin Conferences, the report addressed the preoccupations arising out of the protracted economic depression. The report contained the essential elements for a general discussion of the practical problems of nutrition in relation both to public health and to economic recovery. It was used as a basis of discussion when the delegations of 12 governments at the 16th Assembly of the League, held in September 1935, requested that nutrition be placed on the agenda. Indeed, the discussion in the 2nd Committee of the Assembly was introduced by Mr. Bruce, the Australian delegate, who stressed the necessity of harmonising agriculture and public health in the interest of the latter. An increasing consumption of protective foods was presented as a remedy for malnutrition, and also as some help towards facing the agricultural crisis. Bruce called for a change in State protective subsidies, so they could be used to increase consumption rather than restrict production.

Lord de la Warr, a representative of the United Kingdom delegation, presented a report to the Assembly, considering the subjects of nutrition in relation to public health and the positive effects of improved nutrition on the consumption of agricultural products in such a difficult context. Consequently, the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted a resolution inviting the Health Organisation to continue and extend its work on nutrition in relation to public health. It instructed the technical organisations of the League of Nations, in consultation with the International Labour Office and the International Institute of Agriculture, to collect, summarise and publish information on the measures taken in all countries for securing improved nutrition. It also appointed a committee that included agricultural, economic and health experts and instructed it to submit a general report on the whole question to the next Assembly.[3]

At the same time, the International Labour Office, which had been informed of the general plan of action contained in the Burnet and Aykroyd report, gave proof of its interest with collaborative participation. The Mixed Advisory Agricultural Committee (a board that ensured liaison and cooperation between the ILO and the IIA) and the International Committee for Inter-Cooperative Relations (a private organisation that liased between farmers’ and consumers’ cooperatives) had expressed their desire to cooperate on research into the question of the nutrition of workers. Therefore, during the critical decade of the 1930s, a network of international organisations agreed on the search for expertise to tackle the crisis, taking the population’s nutrition as a main tool.

In 1930 the Polish expert of the League of Nations Health Committee, Witold Chodzko, the Head of the National School of Hygiene in Warsaw, summed up existing fears regarding poor nutritional conditions in the rural areas of most European countries.[4] A month later, the League of Nations Health Committee appointed a SubCommittee on Rural Health, consisting of the Spanish expert Gustavo Pittaluga as president, Witold Chodzko, Gerard Fitzgerald, Carl Hamel, Alberto Lutrario, Ludwik Rajchman and Frank Boudreau. They represented most of the national schools of health in European countries, where public health experts established links with national public health policies.

At the end of the 19th International Labour Organisation Conference (June 1935), the following resolution was unanimously adopted:

Seeing that adequate nutrition, both in quantity and in quality, is essential to

the health and well-being of the workers and their families;

And seeing that, in various countries, evidence has been brought forward to show that large numbers of persons both in town and country are not sufficiently or suitably nourished;

Seeing, moreover, that an increase in the consumption of agricultural foodstuffs would help to raise standards of life and relieve the existing depression in agriculture:

The Conference welcomes the attention drawn by the Director in his report to the problem of nutrition and requests the Governing Body to instruct the Office to continue its investigation of the problem, particularly in its social aspects, in collaboration with the Health and Economic Organisations of the League of Nations, the International Institute of Agriculture and other bodies capable of contributing to its solution, with a view to presenting a report on the subject to the 1936 session of the Conference.[5]

Nutrition was present in every international event during that period. The 22nd Assembly of the League of Nations held in October 1935 recommended the circulation of Burnet and Aykroyd’s report to national administrations. Political and sanitary measures pointed out the necessity of instructing medical practitioners, public health workers and the public in the field of nutrition. A resolution was adopted, asking the Technical Commission on Nutrition to select a list of questions, to be classified by order of priority, as a basis for the work to be carried out in cooperation with the other international institutions. The members appointed to the Technical Commission on Nutrition were: A. Durig (Austria); E.P. Cathcart, E. Mellanby and J.B. Orr (United Kingdom); M.J. Alquier, A. Mayer and L. Lapicque (France); F. Bottazzi (Italy); A. Hojer, C. Schiotz and L.S. Fridericia (Scandinavian States); B. Sbarsky (USSR); and E.V. McCollum, M. Swatz Rose and W. Sebrel (USA). H. Chick (London) was also invited to participate, since he was the technical secretary of the International Conference on Standardisation of Vitamins.

  • [1] E. Burnet and W.R. Aykroyd report was summarised in the Quarterly Bulletin of theLeague of Nations, 1935, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 323-474.
  • [2] Ibidem, p. 394.
  • [3] Ibidem, 1935, p. 395.
  • [4] Chodzko W., The Rural Centre for Public Health and Social Welfare and theImprovement of Rural Health Conditions, Sixteenth Session of the Health Committee,Geneva, League of Nations, 1930.
  • [5] Burnet, Aykroyd, 1935, pp. 395-396.
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