The bag of nuts I have in front of me has a Health Star Rating of 5. The back of the packet tells me the nuts contain vitamins B1 and E, are a source of monosaturated fats and a source of fibre. With this good news I am invited to enjoy ‘happy snacking’. But I’m sure that ‘snacking’ in itself is not good for me. Snacks in between meals can only add to my overall calorie intake and hence increase my weight. I might join the stream of overweight New Zealanders (if I’m not already swimming in it) threatening to overwhelm our health services.
Dr Muriel Bell spent her life dedicated to thinking about nutrition and its effects on New Zealanders’ health. Diana Brown’s recently published valuable biography of this pioneering medical researcher, The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell, charts Bell’s life from her childhood, when vitamins were a little-known entity, to her death in 1974, by which time she had played a major role in nutrition research and education in New Zealand.
Born into a farming family in Murchison in 1898, Muriel Bell witnessed her father applying his self-taught medical skills when medical emergencies occurred in the isolated settlement. Without any knowledge of vitamins A and D, her father ensured that the children took cod liver oil in order to maintain good health. But that precaution could not prevent a brother dying from appendicitis and a beloved little sister dying before her first birthday.
Whatever the impact of these early experiences, it was the suggestion of her older medical student brother, invalided back to New Zealand after service at Gallipoli, that prompted her to study medicine. In 1917 she enrolled with seven other women in a class of thirty to begin medical school. Unlike most of her fellow students, Muriel went on to become a research scientist: her MD thesis was entitled ‘Clinical Studies in basal metabolism in goitrous cases in New Zealand’. Her work complemented that of others, such as Charles Hercus and Eleanor Baker-McLaglan on endemic thyroid disease in Canterbury. The 1920s, as Brown notes, were an exciting time as new research on vitamins and minerals suggested how they might serve to counteract deficiency diseases.
After study overseas Muriel Bell returned to New Zealand. From 1938 to 1964 she was ‘the beating heart’ of the Nutrition Research Department, housed by the Otago Medical School. From that position Dr Bell ensured that the milk in schools scheme offered children the most nutritious milk and that the nutritional value of flour and bread were improved. To overcome local deficiencies, she campaigned for salt to be iodised and water fluoridated. The latter was the hardest battle: any idea that ‘pure’ water should be chemically altered worried the public. While she was absorbed in her laboratory work, encouraging students and attending various committees, both her first husband, Jim Saunders who died in 1940 and her second husband, Alfred Hefford, who she married in 1942, attended to the home front.
Apart from her research, Muriel Bell was committed to public education on nutrition. She would no doubt be pleased that I now know what good eating nuts might do me – even if she might not approve of snacks. Bell’s life was unconventional in that she was able to single-mindedly pursue her commitment to science, in effect because two men, successively, willingly took on the role of ‘housewife’ in order to support her all-absorbing career.
Bell sought to make knowledge derived in the laboratory intelligible to lay people so they could put it into use in their kitchens. In her later years Muriel Bell experienced great disappointment in seeing an emphasis on nutrition sidelined (along with her life’s work) as new priorities came to dominant in health research.
Diana Brown’s biography introduces us to an individual driven to answer scientific questions and committed to having an impact on New Zealand’s public health policies. That we no longer worry about suffering from goitre and that many children now have filling-free teeth is, in no small part, due to Muriel Bell’s sustained efforts.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
The Unconventional Life of Dr Muriel Bell by Diana Brown is published by Otago University Press.
Goitre image: Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.