Dutch researcher and entrepreneur, Willem van Eelen, has died in Amsterdam on the 24th of February 2015. Van Eelen was born in 1923, the son of a doctor, and a child of colonial privilege. After suffering starvation in a Japanese P.O.W. camp during the second World War, Van Eelen imagined growing meat in the laboratory, late 1940. The idea came to him while attending a scientific lecture on how to preserve meat as a psychology student at the University of Amsterdam.
For more than half a century, Van Eelen relentlessly researched and promoted In Vitro Meat, also known as victimless meat, cultured meat, tubesteak, frankenmeat, shmeat, and test-tube meat. Admitted, he was not the first to envision the idea of growing meat – or muscle tissue – outside of the animal, yet his lasting effort to turn the vision into a reality earned him the title The Godfather of In Vitro Meat.
While the theoretical possibility of growing meat in an industrial setting has long captured the public imagination, it took decades for science to catch up with Van Eelens imagination. That began to happen in 1981, when stem cells, which can divide almost endlessly and have the ability to develop into many types of tissue, were discovered in mice. Van Eelen immediately recognized the potential. And although at that time there was little interest in turning muscle cells into meat, he persisted in his vision.
In 1999 Van Eelen managed to get U.S. and international patents for the “industrial production of meat using cell culture methods.” In the process, a matrix of collagen is seeded with muscle cells, which are then bathed in a nutritious solution and induced to divide. After much effort, he also convinced the Dutch government to fund research in cell-cultured meats. This research program indirectly resulted in the presentation of the Worlds First Lab Grown Burger by Mark Post in 2013.
In 2011, van Eelen told Newsweek. “It is hard to justify the way animals are treated on this planet. Growing meat without inflicting pain seemed a natural solution.”
Today, many people find it unnatural still to consume meat grown outside the animal, while considering it normal to consume processed meats that are entirely abstracted from the animal they are made of. As nature changes along with us, perhaps in due time growing meat may become as accepted as brewing beer or making cheese.
Before that day arrives, if ever, we will have to overcome both societal as well as technical hurdles still, like the requirement of fetal calf serum to grow the tissue. The Godfather of In Vitro Meat did not live to see that day, but we forever owe him for his vision, leadership and passion on the topic.
Willem Van Eelen was buried today in Noordwijk. We wish his family and loved ones strength in their and our loss. Photograph Michael Hughes.