Arnold Peter Meiklejohn
Born1909 (1909)
Died14 June 1961(1961-06-14) (aged 51–52)
Known forFeeding of inmates and the supervision of 97 medical students at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Edinburgh

Arnold Peter Meiklejohn (1909 – 14 June 1961) was a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Edinburgh who in 1945, was given the responsibility of administering the starvation diet to the severely malnourished and dying inmates at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation by British troops. In this role, he supervised just under 100 London volunteer medical students who were sent to the camp to assist him, at the request of Brigadier Hugh Glyn-Hughes and the war office.

In 1947, at the request of the Medical Research Council (MRC), he assessed and reported on the state of nutrition of German civilians.

He wrote a number of books based on nutrition, particularly errors of metabolism.

Early life

Arnold Meiklejohn was born in Harpenden in 1909. He attended Gresham's School with W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and John Pudney. After completing school, he gained a science scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford and graduated with a first-class honours BSc in physiology in 1931, following which he gained admission to St Mary's Hospital, London, where he received a Radcliffe Scholarship and a Peabody Travelling Fellowship. After three years of working with leading American physicians that included George Minot and William Bosworth Castle he achieved his B.M., B.Ch in 1935.[1]

Second World War

During the Second World War he began working for the Rockefeller Institute and became nutrition adviser to United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).[2][3] In 1946 he was appointed senior lecturer in nutrition at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained for 15 years and was known for his well-prepared entertaining lectures.[1]

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

British medical students employed at Belsen, May 1945[4]

On 29 April 1945, Meiklejohn arrived at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation by British troops with the responsibility of administering the starvation diet to the severely malnourished and dying inmates.

He led one of two teams sent on behalf of UNRRA, the other team being led by Janet Vaughan.[5][6] At the time, the death rate at the camp was estimated at 500[2] or 600 per day[7] when he was sent either 95,[8] 96[9] or 97[2] volunteer medical students from London medical schools, to assist him in camp I, at the request of Brigadier Hugh Glyn-Hughes and the war office. Here, typhus and starvation were prevalent. They included Michael Hargrave, whose diary, later published as Bergen-Belsen 1945: A Medical Student's Journal, details his month-long experience at the camp[2][9][10] and describes the introductory briefing on the challenges they would face, given by Meiklejohn.[11] Other students included Alex Paton who published his memoirs of Belsen in the British Medical Journal in 1981[7] and David Philip Bowler who later had a career in community child health, for which he was awarded the Advance Australia Award for his work in the care of Aboriginal children.[12] Some of the students memoirs were used by author Ben Shephard in the book After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945.[13] On being questioned about the achievements of the students, Meiklejohn responded that "they had restored the moral order".[14]

Feeding in camp I of Belsen was a major problem.[15] Generous rich food was not tolerated by inmates who had starved for so long. Despite a number of cookhouses and co-ordinating offices, simply handing out food was not enough.[6] Meiklejohn wondered why a mixture that worked so well in Bengal was so disastrous in Belsen. It was, according to the rabbi Reverend Leslie Hardman, "revoltingly sweet".[16][17] Meiklejohn postulated that the unpopular Bengal mixture, made of dried milk, flour, sugar and molasses which was used in the Bengal famine of 1943 likely halved the death rate from starvation. People in the students' hospital lived due to the work of the students and he commended them for their organisation.[6][16][18] The mixture was much too sweet for eastern Europeans.[14][17]

Meiklejohn also led the postmortems of some of those that died by starvation and his findings included extreme muscle wasting, swollen ankles and feet, small hearts and fluid around the heart. Almost all of those that had postmortems had tuberculosis (TB) of varying types including miliary tuberculosis and chronic TB. The stomach was sometimes found to be small from atrophy or large from gaseous distension and the large intestine could be atrophied or ulcerated.[2]

German health

In 1946, following German demand for more food, a severe winter and restricted imports, the Medical Research Council (MRC) sponsored a number of nutritional scientists including Robert McCance, Elsie Widdowson and Meiklejohn to report on the German state of health. All three came to the same conclusion that the Germans might have lost some weight due to food shortages but were generally not malnourished and after examining more than 2000 Germans, Meiklejohn reported that "many adults are likely to have benefitted from losing excess weight and its complications of high blood pressure, diabetes and gall stones".[5] He disagreed with German studies of the nutritional state of its civilians stating the "Germans are now grossly over exaggerating the effects of the food shortage".[5]

Later life

In 1949, he received his D.M. and in the same year his publications earned him Membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom.[1]


He wrote predominantly on errors of metabolism, in both American and British publications. In 1941, he wrote "Is Thiamine the Anti-neuritis Vitamin?" published in the Johns Hopkins Bulletin.[1]

In 1954 he published a paper titled "The curious obscurity of Dr James Lind" in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences which contributed to the inspiration of research into James Lind following the bicentenary year of the Treatise he produced.[19]

In 1959 he co-authored the acclaimed textbook Human Nutrition and Dietetics with Sir Stanley Davidson and R. Passmore.[1]

Personal and family

Meiklejohn was married to Jean, and they had two sons.[1]

His obituary in the British Medical Journal enumerated some of his quirks, saying; "He had many amusing and endearing foibles; there were his oddities of dress, his dilapidated motor-car, his inveterate snuff-taking, and his refusal to drink coffee at lunch as he said it disturbed his post-prandial nap-normally enjoyed on the floor of his room in the Department of Medicine with his head resting on a green velvet pillow specially designed for the purpose."[1]


He died in a fishing accident on 14 June 1961, at the age of 51.[1]

Selected publications