Born in Ulster, the son of a linen merchant, he was educated at St. Bees School, before wartime service in the Royal Naval Air Service flying an observation aircraft from the warship HMS Indomitable. From 1919 he read Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, after an initial start on the Agriculture course. In 1926 he went on to study medicine at King's College Hospital in London. He then began a scientific career in the study of nutrition.
With colleague H. Shipp, he published The Chemistry of Flesh Foods and their Losses on Cooking in 1933. In 1936, he delivered the Goulstonian Lecture to the Royal College of Physicians, on the subject of Medical problems in mineral metabolism. He co-authored the long-standard text and reference book The Chemical Composition of Foods in 1940 with Elsie Widdowson, his science co-worker. Their work became known as the basis for modern Western nutritional thinking, with editions in print from 1940 to 2002. McCance and Widdowson played a leading part in wartime rationing and 1940s government nutrition efforts.
He was later the director of the Medical Research Council's infantile malnutrition unit in Kampala, Uganda. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1948, and appointed CBE in 1953. He died on 5 March 1993.
- Widdowson, E. M. (1995). "Robert Alexander McCance. 9 December 1898-5 March 1993". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 41: 261–80. PMID 11615357. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1995.0016.
- Ashwell, M.[editor] McCance & Widdowson – A Scientific Partnership of 60 years ( McCance and Widdowson: A Scientific Partnership of 60 Years 1993 ISBN 0907667074
- Widdowson, EM (1995). "Robert Alexander McCance – 9 December 1898—5 March 1993". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 41: 261–80. PMID 11615357. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1995.0016.
- "The Robert McCance Lecture". Retrieved 2012-10-17.
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