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Behind the Name: Wilbur O. Atwater

By Sten Spinella
On April 29, 2014

The Wilbur O. Atwater Laboratory is named after the prominent Connecticut scientist and academic of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Located in-between the chemistry, math and science buildings, the laboratory was named after Atwater because of its research areas for the College of Agriculture. Although Atwater gained notoriety for his strong hand in the invention of the "Calorimeter," which had the ability to determine the amount of calories in a specific item of food, he had his stake in numerous scientific ideas and practices in agriculture in the late 20th century.
Born in New York in 1844, Atwater grew up in Vermont and later went to its university before transferring to Wesleyan University in Connecticut at the age of 25. Upon his graduation from Wesleyan, Atwater taught high school students until he began studying science and attempting to obtain his doctoral degree at Yale University.
After earning his Ph.D. at Yale, Atwater traveled to Europe to study agricultural and physiological chemistry.
Following his period of studies in Europe, Atwater was hired as a professor of chemistry at what is now known as the University of Tennessee. A year later he moved to Maine to teach at what is now known as the University of Maine. During his time in Maine, he was introduced to his wife, Marcia Woodren, whom he married in 1874.
In 1873 he returned to Connecticut to teach chemistry at Wesleyan. Although his time during and immediately after attending college was one of great upheaval, Atwater settled on a teaching career at Wesleyan, instructing students there all the way to his death in 1907.
A string of impressive personal accomplishments began in 1875, with Atwater lobbying the Connecticut Legislature for help in funding a state agricultural station. With assistance from Wesleyan and fellow professors, Atwater was able to erect the initial experimental station of agriculture in the U.S. at Wesleyan.
With increased notoriety, Atwater was allowed more flexibility in his scholarship, and he threw his hat into projects of all sorts. Two of his projects had to do with the nutritional value of animals, such as fish and beef.
It was in 1885 that Atwater made his breakthrough. According to the Journal of Nutrition, he prepared a report that "calculated the daily per capita supplies of protein, fat and carbohydrates," and "made recommendations as to how more economical diets adequate in nutritive value could be selected." Published by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor in 1886, Atwater effectively became one of the first American dieticians through his scientific research.
Experimental agricultural stations like the one Atwater had introduced at Wesleyan were popping up throughout the United States. One of these stations was flowering at the Storrs Agricultural School, which Atwater was placed in charge of. His influence helped bring money to what later became the University of Connecticut. With these stations in place and spread out through a number of universities, an Office of Experiment Stations set up by the US Department of Agriculture. Atwater was aptly hired to be its head.
Guided by Atwater, the Storrs agricultural station grew because of its abundant land, which was unavailable at Wesleyan. Still a professor at Wesleyan and the head of many agricultural stations, Atwater somehow found time to devote himself to dietary studies. He provided nutritional analyses and put in place programs at Wesleyan and Storrs Agricultural School that taught students of the issues regarding human nutrition. Atwater's ties to UConn were strong. In fact, he was the first UConn faculty member to speak at commencement, and did so with the Governor of Connecticut at the time.
With special attention paid to foods full of sugar and fat, Atwater voiced his concern in the later nineteenth century of a distinctly modern issue: obesity.
"It is a fair question whether the results of these things have induced among us in a large class of well-to-do people, with little muscular activity, a habit of excessive eating and may be responsible for great damage to health, to say nothing of the purse," Atwater wrote in a study.
In 1896, after 500 experiments with two other scientists, Atwater completed the aforementioned Calorimeter. According to the Hartford Courant, Atwater: "developed the respiration calorimeter to measure precisely the energy provided by food and created a system to measure that energy in units, known as calories. Maintained in the basement of Judd Hall, the 4- by 8-foot chamber housed a machine that measured human oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output."
A prolific researcher and writer, Atwater was a mainstay in academic journals - always out to show proof of the effectiveness of experimental nutritional and agricultural studies. But, in 1904, Atwater was prevented from tackling his overwhelming workload due to illness. Despite his inability to carry on what he started, a battalion of fellow professors as well as talented undergraduates, who continued his research and work fervently, up to and past his death.
A father of two children, Atwater was greatly admired by his family and associates. After learning of his death in 1907, Wesleyan faculty meeting minutes read: "Professor Atwater was one of the most genial and companionable of men. With a buoyant, elastic temper, exhaustless energy, always ready to talk from a full mind, eager to give and receive, always hopeful and in good humor, he seemed to bring life and vigor wherever he went."

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