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Guarding Our Health

Book Review
The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell by Diana Brown (Otago Universith Press, $35)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

murielbell-web2This is an authoritative biography of a significant New Zealand scientist.  Even though I heard of Muriel Bell in my childhood in Dunedin, I had no idea of the range of her work until I read this book. Her career was unconventional for her day in that few women in the 1920s studied medicine, and very few indeed carried on to a doctorate in medicine and a career in research.  Furthermore, when she married, her husband managed their domestic life and she mostly retained her maiden name and continued to advance her career.  Her second husband lived most of the time in Wellington while she remained in Dunedin. She had no children.  From a 21st-century perspective, none of this seems unconventional: I must admit I was expecting a more Bohemian story.

This book is careful to mention the various specialties and research links of the many worldwide scholars that Dr Bell interacted with and learned from.   Footnotes abound, but surprisingly there is no bibliography so if, for example, you want to find out what “Preston Lady Doctor” refers to, you have to scroll back through the footnotes to find the first mention of it.  The book is full of names that mean nothing to a general reader today, important though they would be to a scholarly reader to establish just what Dr Bell’s own contribution was.  Amongst the unknown international names are well known New Zealanders such as Sir Charles Hercus, Sir John Walsh and her friend Dr Elizabeth (Bess) Gregory, respectively deans of the Otago Medical, Dental and Home Science schools.  She was also friends with Peter Fraser and Millicent Baxter, but the author was unable to find out much about her personal life.

Dr Bell made her mark in the then unfashionable subject of nutrition — mainly human nutrition but also bush sickness in sheep. Many things we take for granted today — such as the importance of diet for good health — were not recognised then. Her master’s thesis on goitre contributed to a decision to iodise salt but she was sceptical about there being a link between animal fats and heart disease.  She was a foundation member, and the only woman, on the Medical Research Council and on the Board of Health, roles she held for many years.  From 1940 to 1964 she held the newly created position of State Nutritionist and headed the Nutrition Research Unit which enabled her to have her fingers in many pies. Among other tasks, she advised Edmund Hillary on food for the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition and supervised its manufacture in Dunedin.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book were when the author described Dr Bell’s roles in the fights for milk in schools and fluoridation. I had no idea that the introduction of milk in schools was controversial, though I know we shunned milk at high school where full crates were left outside for us to help ourselves. The fluoridation of water is, of course, still sometimes resisted many decades after Dr Bell discovered the importance of fluoride in dental health.  After studying alternative ways to increase fluoride in our diets, “Battle-Axe Bell” lobbied for the fluoridation of water.

It is good that this influential woman has had a scholarly biography written about her.  It will be of particular appeal to anyone interested in the history of nutrition research.