Chick, Harriette (1875–1977)

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Chick, Harriette (1875–1977)

British nutritionist who made important contributions to public health—particularly by discovering the nutritional origins of a number of diseases including rickets and pellagra—and who was a co-discoverer of the standard Chick-Martin test for disinfectants. Name variations: Dame Harriette Chick. Born in London, England, on January 6, 1875; died at age 102 in Cambridge, England, on July 9, 1977; one of six daughters and four sons of Samuel Chick and Emma (Hooley) Chick; attended University College, London, graduating with a doctorate in 1904; postgraduate work at the hygiene institutes in Vienna and Munich; never married.

Awarded Commander of the British Empire (1932) and Dame of the British Empire (1949).

Harriette Chick was one of the key figures in the development of nutritional science in the 20th century. She was born into a large, affluent British family in 1875, a year in which the British Empire was unchallenged and Queen Victoria had been on the throne for 38 years. Harriette's father Samuel was a prosperous lace merchant and property owner. Both he and his wife were devout Methodists who staunchly believed that their seven daughters, as well as their four sons, should cultivate their minds along with their souls. Of the seven Chick girls, five became university graduates in various fields including medicine, physics, chemistry, botany, medicine and English. After receiving an excellent education that encompassed the basics of science at Notting Hill High School, Harriette enrolled at University College, London, graduating with a doctorate in 1904 on the basis of research on green algae in polluted waters. Determined to make research her life's work, she did postgraduate work at the leading Hygiene Institutes of the Continent, those in Vienna and Munich.

Upon Chick's return to England, she worked for some time in Liverpool and then applied for a research fellowship at London's noted Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. Despite her obvious qualifications, two members of the institute staff were strongly opposed to having a woman even as a junior colleague, and they implored the director, Sir Charles Martin, to turn down her application. Their objections were ignored, and in 1905 Chick began a highly productive relationship of four decades with the Lister Institute. Among her first major research achievements was a collaborative effort with Martin that resulted in what became known as the Chick-Martin test for disinfectants. This replaced an earlier, much less satisfactory procedure that was carried out in distilled water; the Chick-Martin test, on the other hand, was realistic in that it added organic matter (3% dried human feces). In the next several years, the research team of Chick and Martin produced work of at least equal significance, including pioneering investigations of the nature of proteins. Three of their important papers, which appeared in the Journal of Hygiene in 1908, demonstrated conclusively that heat coagulation was an orderly process governed by known chemical laws.

The start of World War I in 1914 created new priorities for researchers, and at first Chick was involved in the task of testing and bottling tetanus antitoxin for the British troops on the Western front. This emergency task completed, she returned to her laboratory at the Lister Institute to prepare serums for the treatment of typhoid, paratyphoid and dysentery, diseases that were killing and disabling thousands of Allied troops on several fronts of the war. During this period, she became increasingly involved in research into vitamins, work that resulted in the publication of a number of important monographs between 1919 and 1932. The sufferings brought on by the war did not end with the armistice that was signed in November 1918. In the spring of 1919, Harriette Chick began to receive alarming reports of widespread nutritional deficiencies among the populations of the former enemy nations Germany and Austria-Hungary. She arrived in Vienna to find a population on the brink, due to more than four years of near-starvation conditions.

Working with two other dedicated scientists, Margaret Hume and Elsie Dalyell , Chick and her staff catalogued a vast range of malnutrition-induced diseases including scurvy, rickets and xerophthalmia in infants, as well as osteomalacia in the elderly. Along with the internationally recognized Professor Clemens von Pirquet and his staff at the University of Vienna's Pediatric Clinic, over the next several years Chick and her team made important discoveries in the relationship between nutrition and disease. During this period, Harriette Chick and her colleagues were able to prove conclusively that rickets was caused exclusively by dietary deficiencies, and that these deficiencies could be prevented or their effects overcome by regular ingestion of cod liver oil, which contained large amounts of the needed fat-soluble preventive vitamins. Regular exposure to ultraviolet light, if necessary through a sun lamp in the winter, was also discovered to be a crucial prevention measure. Marshaling vast amounts of clinical evidence, Chick argued her case convincingly to the sometimes skeptical and conservative Viennese physicians, including Professor von Pirquet, who had at first believed that the cause of rickets was an infection. These important contributions to public health would remain foundation stones of modern medical therapeutics.

Chick returned to London in 1922 to continue her research at the Lister Institute, becoming the director of its division of nutrition. Throughout the next two decades, she would work tirelessly studying an exciting new field of investigation, the nutritional value of proteins. First working with rats, she methodically investigated the role of vitamins in human health. In time, she would make important discoveries regarding the nutritional role of B-vitamins, and her papers in this area—including the values of different kinds of flour, brown and white bread, and potatoes—were of pioneering significance. During these years, she began to receive many honors. In 1932, she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire, and the next year she received an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Manchester. Another important honor was the position of secretary of the League of Nations health section committee on the physiological bases of nutrition, a post she held from 1934 through 1937.

Dalyell, Elsie (1881–1948)

Australian pathologist. Born Elsie Dalyell on December 13, 1881, in Newtown, Sydney, Australia; died in 1948; second daughter of Jean (McGregor) Dalyell and James Melville Dalyell (a mining engineer); attended Sydney Girls' High School.

Following her graduation from Sydney Girls' High School, Elsie Dalyell became a pupil-teacher for the Department of Public Instruction in 1897, while studying arts and science for a year at the University of Sydney. In 1905, after a hysterectomy, Dalyell quit teaching and undertook second-year medicine, graduating with an MB (bachelor of medicine) first class with honors from the university in 1909 and a degree in chemistry in 1910. She was then appointed medical officer at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 1911, Dalyell became the first woman on the full-time medical-school staff as demonstrator in pathology. The next year, in 1912, she became the first woman elected to a Beit fellowship. Dalyell served out her fellowship at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in London.

Although she was close to retirement when World War II began in September 1939, Chick refused to leave her research, insisting instead on moving her rats and other experimental animals in her own car to Cambridge, where her laboratory was reconstituted in the home of Sir Charles Martin. Harriette continued her research throughout the war years and did not retire from the Lister Institute until 1945, five years later than would have been customary. Although officially retired, she maintained close contact with the nutrition division of the institute until it was disbanded in 1949. That same year, King George VI granted Harriette Chick the title of Dame of the British Empire. Dame Harriette remained active during the later decades of her long life, and her service to the field of nutritional research included her pioneering efforts in the 1940s as a founding member of the Nutrition Society. Highly respected by her peers, she served as president of the Nutrition Society from 1956 through 1959.

In 1974, shortly before her 100th birthday, she gave a lecture on her years in Vienna to the British Nutrition Foundation. On this occasion, she not only received an award, but was able despite her extreme age to give a lively introduction to the lecture, the bulk of which was then read by a younger colleague. A year later, when she was 100 years of age, Chick attended the annual general meeting of the Lister Institute, which was held in the laboratories in Chelsea where she had carried out so much of her path-breaking research. Short in stature, always neatly dressed, Harriette Chick was interested in lively conversation and debate even in the tenth decade of her long and productive life. Physically and mentally active to the end, she died suddenly in Cambridge on July 9, 1977. The warm tribute to her in London's Times summed up a remarkable life rich in achievements: "Dame Harriette was a person of quiet charm, of great determination, and of much courage. She had all the best and most sterling qualities of the Victorians—upright, honest, and at all times determined to do her duty."


Chick, Harriette, Margaret Hume, and Marjorie MacFar-lane. War on Disease: A History of the Lister Institute. London: André Deutsch, 1971.

"Dame Harriette Chick: Strides in nutrition that overtook disease," in The Times [London]. July 11, 1977, p. 14.

Sinclair, H.M. "Chick, Dame Harriette," in Lord Blake and C. S. Nicholls, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography 1971–1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 142–143.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia