Wilbur Olin Atwater

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Atwater, Wilbur Olin

(b. Johnsburg, New York, 3 May 1844; d. Middletown, Connecticut, 22 September 1907)

agricultural chemistry, physiology, scientific administration.

The son of William Warren Atwater, a Methodist clergyman, and Eliza Barnes Atwater, Wilbur Atwater studied for two years at the University of Vermont and received his bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan College in 1865. Interested in both agriculture and chemistry, he then went for postgraduate work to Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School, where he studied under the chemist Samuel W. Johnson, a Leipzig graduate and America’s leading authority on agricultural chemistry. Atwater earned his doctorate in 1869, with a thesis on the analysis of the composition of several varieties of American maize. He then spent two years at Leipzig and Berlin. After brief teaching periods at the University of Tennessee and Maine State College, in 1873 he was appointed professor of chemistry at Wesleyan, a position he held until his death.

In 1875 the Connecticut legislature—with the encouragement and financial aid of agricultural editor Orange Judd—established America’s first agricultural experiment station, patterned largely after German stations, institutions admired by both Johnson and Atwater. The establishment of the station was a goal to which Johnson had been dedicated since the mid-1850’s. From 1875 until 1877, the station was at Middletown and under Atwater’s direction. In 1877 it moved to New Haven and the guidance of Johnson. Like most of his contemporary agricultural chemists, Atwater became increasingly involved in fertilizer investigation and testing, using this work partly as a means of gaining agricultural support for scientific research generally. (In the course of it he was able to demonstrate independently the role of leguminous plants in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen.) Even after the directorship of the Connecticut station had passed into Johnson’s hands, Atwater continued to organize fertilizer experiments and to write regularly for farm readers on the application of science to agriculture.

In 1887, with the passage of the Hatch Act, a measure providing federal funds for the establishment of an agricultural experiment station in each state, Atwater was appointed chief of the Office of Experiment Stations, established within the U. S. Department of Agriculture to oversee and coordinate the work of the state experiment stations. Although he occupied this post for only two years—during which he continued his academic duties at Wesleyan—Atwater exerted a decisive influence on administrative policy in regard to the stations. His basic policies were elaborated and implemented through the next quarter century by his successor, A. C. True, a Wesleyan classicist who depended heavily on Atwater’s advice. The influence of True and Atwater upon the development of agricultural research in the United States was both positive and surprisingly pervasive, extending to many aspects of basic biological investigation.

In 1887 Atwater also visited Europe, where at Munich he became deeply interested in the calorimetric work of Carl Voit and Max Rubner. On his return to Wesleyan, Atwater sought the aid of E. B. Rosa, his physicist colleague, in the design and construction of what came to be called the Atwater-Rosa calorimeter. Begun in 1892, the calorimeter was in operation by 1897 (preliminary studies had appeared in 1896). Atwater was concerned not only with metabolism as a problem in physiology, but also with the use of his new techniques for the determination of improved dietary standards for the working class, standards that might prescribe a diet providing optimum food value at lowest cost. An adroit manipulator of political and business support, Atwater was able to demonstrate the value of such nutritional investigations to the Committee on Agriculture of the House of Representatives, which in 1894 began to support nutrition research (a program directed by Atwater until his death). Graham Lusk, Francis Benedict, and H. P. Armsby were among the other American students of metabolism who used Atwater’s calorimetric techniques.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, calorimetric work had become an extremely popular, almost fashionable field, with broad implications for public policy and popular health education. It is ironic that the total impact of Atwater’s nutrition work was somewhat clouded: his emphasis on caloric values—in the absence of knowledge of vitamin and amino acid requirements—led to recommendations that the working class purchase carbohydrates and avoid such “luxuries” as green vegetables. Vigorous though Atwater’s scientific work was, his greatest contribution to the development of science in the United States was organizational and administrative—especially his efforts to establish scientific standards for experiment station research. Indeed, his forcefulness in such matters provided an occasional source of disquietude to certain of his colleagues and his career was marked at times by friction with contemporaries.


The basic source for Atwater’s life is his extensive collection of papers and correspondence, including documents recording his tenure as first director of the Office of Experiment Stations. The papers are in the possession of the University Archives, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn.; microfilm copies are available at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. There is no full-length biography of Atwater, but for sketches of his life see Benjamin Harrow, “Wilbur Olin Atwater,” in Dictionary of American Biography; Leonard A. Maynard, “Wilbur O. Atwater—A Biographical Sketch (May 3, 1844-September 22, 1907),” in Journal of Nutrition, 78 (1962), 3–9. For useful studies placing Atwater’s work, both administrative and scientific, in perspective see Graham Lusk, The Elements of the Science of Nutrition, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia-London, 1909); E. V. McCollum, A History of Nutrition (Boston, 1957); and A. C. True, A History of Agricultural Experimentation and Research in the United States, 1607–1925, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Misc. Pub. No. 251 (Washington, D.C., 1937).

Charles E. Rosenberg

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Atwater, Wilbur Olin (1844–1907) American nutritionist; established the energy conversion factors for fat, protein and carbohydrate still used today; built the first respiration calorimeter to measure heat production, oxygen consumption, and carbon dioxide production at the same time.