September 22, 1907: Wilbur Olin Atwater dies at age 63. He was born in Johnsburg, New York in 1844 and grew up in New England. He did not fight in the US Civil War, instead pursuing his studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was interested in civil engineering and agricultural chemistry and in 1868 he enrolled in Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School. There he studied agricultural fertilizers for mineral content and received his PhD in 1869. He then spent two years in Leipzig and Berlin visiting agricultural experiment stations. He also visited Scotland, Rome, and Naples and wrote of his travels for US newspapers. He returned to the US to teach at East Tennessee University and later went to Wesleyan to serve as their first Professor of Chemistry.
Atwater is best known for studies of human nutrition. He and fellow Wesleyan scientists Edward Rosa and Francis Benedict worked to create a system to measure “precisely” the energy provided by food – what we know today as calories. They did this by their invention of a respiration calorimeter which was housed in the basement of Judd Hall. Annual costs for experimentation surpassed $10,000 and it was considered a dream project for the 19th century. Atwater ran about 500 experiments in his lifetime with the first done in 1896. He studied respiration and metabolism in animals and humans.
He ran food analysis, dietary evolution, work energy consumption, and digestible foods all aided by his calorimeter. Atwater’s studies were based on the first law of thermodynamics which states that energy can be transformed, but it cannot be created nor destroyed. Applying this law to humans was a new concept but Atwater was able to prove that whatever food was consumed by a human and not converted to energy for use, was stored in the body. It changed how people thought about science and about humans and their place in the world ecology. His studies helped people understand the food calorie in both terms of consumption and metabolism.
The Atwater system or derivatives of it are still used today. They are used to calculate the available energy found in foods. However, it is not without dispute, but no better alternatives have been proposed. Atwater measured the heat of combustion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates and noted they varied slightly depending on the sources. It is argued that his values were based on a typical diet of the time and are not appropriate for the diet we consume today. The digestibility coefficients for mixtures varies and are not the same as for individual items of food. Even with improved systems today, Atwater’s system remains the basis for the science of nutrition in the US.
Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories. I cannot conceive of cooking for friends or family, under reasonable conditions, as being a chore. – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Cookie pieces contain no calories. The process of breaking the cookie causes calorie leakage. – Lewis Grizzard
To say that obesity is caused by merely consuming too many calories is like saying that the only cause of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party. – Adelle Davis
A gourmet who thinks of calories is like a tart who looks at her watch. – James Beard
Also on this day: Manassa Mauler v. The Fighting Marine – In 1927, “The Long Count” fight took place.
Regrets – In 1776, Nathan Hale was executed as a spy.
Tevye’s Family – In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway.
Movies – In 1910, the Duke of York’s Picture House opened.
Ford Tough – In 1975, the US President survived an assassination attempt.