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Geoff Adams reviews The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell by Diana Brown. Published by Otago University Press.
Dr Bell had a profound effect on the health of New Zealanders in the last century. The list of her many achievements deserves appreciation but has almost been forgotten.
She was appointed as New Zealand’s first state nutritionist in 1949, a position she held for almost a quarter of a century, and is due thanks for ground-breaking public health schemes such as milk in schools, iodised salt and water fluoridation.
Dr Bell was a lecturer in physiology from 1923 to 1927 at the Otago Medical School and was the second woman in New Zealand to be awarded the research degree of Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1926. She became a foundation member of the Medical Research Council in 1937, a post she held for two decades. At the same time she was also the sole woman on the Board of Health.
Subsequent pioneering research on vitamins and minerals helped to prevent deficiency diseases, and later to optimise health. Her early research into fats and cholesterol tackled the nutrition-related aspects of coronary heart disease. She was, as Brown points out, a trailblazer committed to the understanding that "we are what we eat" — seeing nutrition as a cornerstone of individual and public health. Dr Bell’s advice to eat more fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and milk products and to cut down on sugar, fat and meat was revolutionary at the time.
It was pleasing to see the author also point to Dr Bell’s commitment to science based on a deep social concern, especially for women and children, for whom she worked tirelessly.
My own vivid memory of this dates from 1956, when as a young reporter for the Otago Daily Times I regularly called on science researchers at the university looking for news. I had some long and interesting conversations with Dr Bell. When she learned that my wife was pregnant, she insisted on giving me a large box of fluoride pills for her to take so that the baby would have no dental problems (of course there was no fluoridated water in Dunedin at that time). The pills were successfully used for all four children.
The title worried me a little — "unconventional" sounds as if the author is being critical; more fitting would be "outstanding".
- Geoff Adams is a former ODT editor.