ESPEN was not formally established until 1980, but its foundations were laid in an informal international meeting in Stockholm in 1979, which has commonly come to be regarded as the first ESPEN meeting.

Here, it was decided to set up a multidisciplinary Society devoted to the study of metabolic problems associated with acute diseases and their nutritional implications and management and to publish a journal Clinical Nutrition.

It was not the first society associated to clinical nutrition. ISPN, the International Society of Parenteral Nutrition, had been founded in 1966 to discuss the scientific work arising from the rapid development in Europe of parenteral nutrition in the late 50s and early 60s. ISPN, which counted both European and American members, held its meetings during the ICN Congresses in various parts of the world. The spreading interest in parenteral nutrition in the US in the 60s eventually led to the establishment of the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) in 1977.

ISPN had to redefine its role to better target the needs of those involved in clinical nutrition in Europe and it was decided that there was a need for an scientifically-orientated organisation providing a common ground for European scientists from many disciplines involved in nutritional support. A first informal meeting was therefore held in Stockholm in 1979 and invitations were sent to key individuals in the various European countries with an interest in clinical nutrition. Financial support was granted by a number of European industrial firms.

The following year a meeting of 800 participants was held in Newcastle where ESPEN was officially founded and its constitution agreed: the Society's officers would be a President, a Secretary, a Treasurer and two Auditors; there would also be a Council, consisting of one key member from each participating country who would elect members to the Executive Committee.

The success of the following meetings in terms of number of participants (Maastricht (1981) with 1300 participants, Vienna (1982) with 1800 participants) and industrial exhibitions showed that ESPEN was stimulating considerable interest both in the scientific and industrial world. Its growing responsibilities led to the establishment of a Scientific Committee that was to assist in giving scientific direction to the meetings and lay down guidelines to maintain high standards for abstract selection, evaluate and select abstracts and appoint reviewers for each topic; an Educational Committee, whose task it was to coordinate the educational aspects of the Society, and an Industrial Committee to develop links between ESPEN and industry.

The Society's rapid expansion in the following years called for further adjustments in terms of ESPEN's organisation and policy. A President in charge of organising the following congress would serve on the Executive Committee for one year, while a Committee Chairman would serve for four years to ensure continuity to ESPEN's policy. Research was promoted by offering a gradually increasing number of travel fellowships and ESPEN Research Fellowships. The first postgraduate course, run by the Educational Committee, was established in Brussels in 1984. Steps were taken to widen the participation of the members in running the affairs of the Society, and smaller additional meetings were held in Budapest and Tel Aviv to facilitate the spread of knowledge and provide scientific interchange in wider geographical areas. In time, the Scientific and Educational Committees were enlarged to include representatives of all discplines.

The Society's educational role has constantly been strengthened over the years: the congress educational programme, now expanded to two days, caters for specialist groups (nurses, dieticians, pharmacists, physicians) and the importance of postgraduate training is reflected in the increasing number of residential courses and workshops held throughout the years on specific topics. The Educational Committee was also made responsible for coordinating consensus statements on clinical nutrition, the results of which are published in Clinical Nutrition.

ESPEN has always endeavoured to maintain high scientific standards in its Congresses and to this end, the Scientific Committee was given the responsibility of evaluating the 400-500 abstracts submitted for each Congress and appointing a panel of reviewers for each topic. ESPEN's journal Clinical Nutrition has been steadily expanding in terms of circulation and number of issues per year (published bimonthly, it has a circulation of over 1000 copies). It is now included in Index Medicus and Current Contents/Life Sciences. The years 1996 and 1997 marked yet another phase of growth of the Society. With a view to expanding its representativity and thus gaining some influence at the European policy-making level, ESPEN has offered National Societies involved in clinical nutrition the possibility of taking out block memberships for a reduced fee. (Adapted from Clark, R. & Vinnars, E. "Early History of ESPEN" Clinical Nutrition 1994; 13:57-61)