graduate in medicine. University Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.
Member of Parliament. Nobel Laureate (Peace Prize). First
Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
The following account was
taken from the
John Boyd Orr (Lord Boyd Orr
as he became) was born at Kilmaurs in Ayrshire in 1880. He received the
Nobel Peace Prize for his scientific research into nutrition and for his
pioneering work as the first director of the UN Food and Agriculture
Organisation. Boyd Orr was undoubtedly one of the greatest Scotsmen of the
20th century, but what was he like as a personality? SR asked his family to
contribute their memories of him.
There are seven of us grandchildren. The children of Dr Judy Orr (or
Barton): John, Ann Marie and Callum; and the children of sculptress Minty
Orr (or Lubbock): Ann Pat, Geoffrey, Andrew and Kenneth. We are now in our
fifties. The Orrs also had a son Billy who was killed in the war at the age
of 17, so there are no grandchildren called Boyd Orr.
Our name for our grandfather was Popeye, because of his bushy eyebrows and
we termed our grandmother Nanimma because she was motherly. Her affectionate
name for him was Wee Jockie and he called her Bess.
Ann Marie's reflections
A man of contradictions was my grandfather. The soldier who was in the navy,
the doctor who won medals for gallantry, the nutritionist whose meals were
usually over cooked, the world traveller who thought Scotland the most
beautiful place on earth. He came relatively late to grandfatherhood. He was
61 when the first of his daughters' children were born, and so his
grandchildren's memories are of a man already old. And yet, even in his
seventies, he travelled ferociously, always with my grandmother, to meetings
and gatherings and sittings, in London, America, China, Russia. My childhood
was punctuated with trips to the local railway stations where my mother or
father and I would wait on grey platforms for the train. Clouds of steam and
squeaking brakes presaged their arrival and like magicians they would
appear, descending from the train, holding stamped and decorated suitcases
instead of rabbits and doves.
On the way home, sitting in the back of the car between them, they would
hold my hand and say how the countryside was more beautiful here than
anywhere else. Despite his forbidding appearance, he loved Scottish dancing
and a good joke. He liked the joke about the Scotsmen who were sent to Hell:
'Forgive us, God, we didna ken, we didna ken.' [Pause]. And God replies, 'Weel,
ye ken noo.' His favourite toast he liked with a glass of claret was: 'Never
above you, never beneath you, always beside you. Kai kai Baluch.'
And he was always with you: whether asking your opinion (even though you
were just a difficult teenager), listening to your reply, sharing his food –
the apple cut with his penknife in the morning, his meat at Sunday lunch –
or taking your arm on the way to supper. He was a great man, my grandfather.
Ann Marie Legge
Surprisingly, we have discovered our earliest memories of Popeye are the
same: that of clambering into his early morning bed to be given small slices
of apple or orange, cut with a small silver knife about 1.5" long. He also
had a bowl of pandrops, which we would plead for and enjoy: 'Just one more
Popeye, just one more.'
Every Sunday his two daughters and their families would come to Sunday
dinner at Newton of Stracathro. Mrs Mutch, known as Mutchie, used to prepare
a three-course meal that started with soup. Usually it was a delicious
Scotch broth with barley and fresh vegetables, parsley and snippets of curly
kale. The main course was nearly always a roast beef, always very well done.
It tasted much like cardboard. The milk always had 1" of cream on the top
and it came directly from the farm milking parlour. Prior to lunch there was
always the Bristol Cream sherry which Wee Jockie and Bess liked. We enjoyed
sharing this family time with them in the warm library, with its deep red
carpet, small cosy fire, and floor to ceiling books of medicine, papers,
poetry and whodunnits.
At Christmas time, our grandparents would receive a great variety of cards.
Our favourite was from Chou en Lai, the vice-premier of China. Every year he
sent a nice one. Popeye was a great admirer of Chou en Lai, who was a
mandarin before the revolution. We felt very privileged to obtain first-hand
observations. He was soon disillusioned with Mao Tse Tung, although his
signed photograph remained up on the wall with the other notables of the
age, in 'the rogues’ gallery.'
One of Popeye's passions was croquet. He played a kinder version of the game
and you were not allowed to place your foot on your own ball while sending
the other to kingdom come. He was also known to help his lie with his
slippered foot. We watched carefully to catch him taking this little
Geoffrey tells us how he used to sit with Popeye for hours with his little
black book in which he would enter his stock trades. He told Geoff that he
made more money by investing in the stock market than he ever did by
Popeye was very interested in all of us and spent time with us, but if he
was busy, as far as he was concerned we simply did not exist, and we would
certainly never have dreamed of disturbing him.
Wee Jockie had no interest in his dress or appearance and Bess had a tricky
time making sure he was appropriately dressed, with socks matching. He would
leave the house with his adored Bess brushing off the last of the dog hairs.
John Boyd Orr was incredibly single-minded and he could be perfectly wrapped
up in his own thoughts or business to the exclusion of all else. He smoked a
pipe with a lovely little round bowl and would knock it out into the waste
paper basket beside him which was full of screwed up discarded paper.
Nanimma found the basket smouldering away a few times while he was
blissfully unaware of an impending house fire. Once he was having his hair
cut and his mind was still busy on other things when the barber interrupted
his thoughts to tell him he had finished. 'Well, cut it again!', he said.
Stories and anecdotes
We loved stories of incidences in his life, especially if they were
politically risqué, adventurous or amusing. He always spoke in his lovely
west coast burr and the story-telling often took place around the fire in
When John and Elizabeth Boyd Orr had an audience with Pope John XXIII, the
Pope asked if John would like him to bless anything. Wee Jockie, son of a
pastor, immediately recalled the Bible passage about money (render unto
Caesar the things that are Caesar's and render unto God the things that are
God's) and asked the Pope to bless a coin in his pocket, which the Pope did.
Because Popeye was in favour of population control and because he was
brought up in a Protestant background, he was not a supporter of the
Catholic church, although he was an admirer of Pope John. Popeye, in fact,
became an atheist, but he said Nanimma was a believer and that that gave her
great comfort. He would never ever have given us any direction in religious
belief, unless we had asked for it.
Geoffrey remembers Popeye telling him about being asked on prime TV time in
the States, what he would do to establish world peace (as a Nobel peace
prize winner). In his usual subtle manner, he replied: 'Fire Senator Joe
McCarthy and bomb the Pentagon.' This was almost treason during the McCarthy
era. After the broadcast, people would come by him in the street and
surreptitiously squeeze his hand in agreement, because it was so dangerous
to be anti-McCarthy. Kenneth has unsuccessfully tried to get the FBI file on
John Boyd Orr.
When Popeye and Nanimma went to China, it was when relations with the west
were poor. He was impressed with the university system of specialising in
agriculture and general learning for future leaders etc. He told how he was
at a state banquet and that there was a toast to Mao. After this, Popeye got
up and asked if he could give a toast to a beautiful woman. The head of the
banquet, assuming that he was referring to his bride, said: 'Of course.' He
got to his feet and asked the Chinese to raise their glasses to toast the
beautiful woman 'Queen Elizabeth.' There was a stunned silence for a short
time, and then they all laughed and raised their glasses to Queen Elizabeth!
On a later trip to China, Wee Jockie shamed the Chinese into taking them to
one of the dams they were boasting about as being part of their magnificent
progress. They flew, took a car, then went on foot. They went through
villages where they had never seen a white man. The villages trooped after
the Boyd Orrs, laughing and pointing. When they asked why, they were told
that white bushy eyebrows were the sign of a saint. In addition, a large
nose meant that the person had a large male member and John Boyd Orr's nose
He told the story of the soldier that he saved during the Great War. A young
man was court-marshalled for cowardice because he ran from the front. Popeye
said that the man was not in a fit mental state to be shot. He was therefore
condemned to be tied to a wheel. Popeye managed to get the man off this
punishment. The soldier returned to the front and became a hero because at
night he slipped across no man's land and stole the machine gun from the
Germans that had them pinned down. When the man was presented with a medal
from the provost of Glasgow, he stole the provost's watch!
While he was a medic in the First World War, Popeye found that the troops in
the front needed water but that water had to be carried forward in regular
army vehicles. Since the vehicles were frequently blown up before reaching
the front, Popeye determined that the water was required for health and was
therefore medicinal and was therefore eligible to be carried forward in the
Red Cross ambulances. This probably saved a great number of lives.
Another Great War story was how the medical services came to inspect the
health of his battalion because no men were being sent to hospital with
intestinal problems, as there were from other battalions. They thought he
was covering up. Indeed Popeye was unaware of the anomaly at the time, let
alone the reason for it. What had happened was that, being a practical
person, sympathetic to the care of his men, he had organised that fresh
vegetables from the surrounding deserted fields be made into tasty broths.
These, of course, were full of minerals and vitamins, particularly vitamin
C, which prevented illnesses. Vegetable broth always takes me back to this
interesting accident of history.
Other accidents were not so happy. When it was his turn to wash the socks,
he took time to read and he accidentally boiled them. His men were not
Ann Pat Gooch and Geoffrey Lubbock, with input from Andrew and Kenneth
John's additional comments
For a nutrition expert, his diet was unusual. Apart from his orange (and
vitamin pill) in bed every morning, he was subjected, by Mutchie, to bacon,
eggs and fried scones floating in grease – a breakfast later described as 'a
heart attack on a plate.' As Popeye lived to 90 and Nanimma to 99 they
either had extraordinary constitutions or modern dieticians still have
something to learn.
The investment technique he employed in his 'Little Black Book' was simple
but effective. He would wait until the share price rose and then sell off
sufficient shares to reduce the cost of the remainder to nil. (Sadly capital
gains tax has made this more difficult for his grandchildren!). This
technique does, of course, necessitate choosing shares which are going to
rise in value – I never did discover what he did if the price fell!
He was not used to the telephone. He did not say goodbye or any other of the
conversational niceties. When he was through with his conversation, he would
either just hang up or say: 'That's all,' and then hang up.
Click here to learn more about him