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One of Otago's best known nutrition researchers, Dr Muriel Bell. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Margaret Madill papers, r.6653, S14-589c.

One of Otago’s best known nutrition researchers, Dr Muriel Bell. Image courtesy of the Hocken Collections, Margaret Madill papers, r.6653, S14-589c.

Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition is the largest such university department in the Southern Hemisphere, and boasts an enviable international reputation. Its staff are often called on for their expertise in this country and beyond – two of the fifteen members of the World Health Organization’s Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group are Otago human nutrition professors, Jim Mann and Murray Skeaff. Otago’s history in nutrition research goes back over a century, long predating the creation of a specialist department. It involves the story of some remarkable people, including several pioneering women scientists.

It could be argued that the university’s first nutrition researcher was Frederic Truby King, appointed Lecturer on Mental Diseases at the medical school in 1889 to complement his role as Superintendent of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Among many other things, he was interested in the role of diet in mental health. This later evolved into his famous work on infant nutrition and the founding of the Plunket Society, which promoted infant health and welfare.

The arrival of John Malcolm as Otago’s first Professor of Physiology (previously combined with anatomy) in 1905 marked a new step in research into nutrition at the university. Malcolm, a Scot, researched the nutritional values of various New Zealand foods, most notably local fish. His introduction of vitamin assays to this country led to practical advice on diets. This benefited animals as well as humans, with the diet he devised ensuring the survival of the dogs on Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition.

One of Malcolm’s students, Muriel Bell, became a well-known nutritionist and long-serving member of the Department of Physiology. She graduated in medicine in 1922, then lectured in physiology while completing a doctorate on goitre. After some years working overseas, she returned to the department in 1935. As her entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography notes, her “forte was applied research into subjects of practical everyday importance, such as the vitamin content of New Zealand fruit, vegetables, fish and cereals.” She was a public health campaigner as well as a research scientist, and the Department of Health employed her part-time as a nutritionist for many years. She provided advice on war and post-war food rationing, and famously published a recipe for rosehip syrup to provide 1940s youngsters with adequate Vitamin C.

These three significant nutrition researchers were part of the Otago Medical School, but in 1911 another location for nutrition research arrived with the establishment of Otago’s School of Home Science. Food was a key topic within the home science syllabus, though this involved, in addition to nutrition, the study of food preparation and science, including the development of new food products. These were the origins of today’s two separate departments, human nutrition and food science. A Master of Home Science degree, introduced in 1926, brought a new focus on research to the school, with nutrition by far the most popular topic for dissertations.

Elizabeth Gregory, one of the University of Otago's best-known experts on nutrition. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-C-024999-F.

Elizabeth Gregory, another well-known Otago nutrition expert. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-C-024999-F.

One early master’s graduate of the Home Science School, Elizabeth Gregory, went on to further postgraduate study in nutrition. She completed a PhD – A study of fat metabolism, with special reference to nutrition on diets devoid of fat – at University College, London, before returning to Otago as lecturer in chemistry and nutrition in 1932. She was Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Home Science from 1941 to 1961. Like her physiology colleague Muriel Bell, with whom she often consulted, Gregory was frequently looked to for her expertise in public health issues relating to nutrition.

Among the 1940s home science students taught by Gregory was a woman who became a world-leading nutrition researcher: Marion Robinson. After completing a master’s degree at Otago she went on to further study at Cambridge. In 1958 she returned to Otago’s Faculty of Home Science, where she worked for the next thirty years. In a new laboratory set up in an old shed, Robinson studied the metabolism of various trace elements, becoming famous for her work on selenium. Meanwhile, Robinson also developed the teaching programme in human nutrition further, and it became available as a subject for BSc, including an honours programme, in the 1970s, as well as remaining a significant part of the home science degree.

The arrival of Jim Mann from Oxford as the new Professor of Human Nutrition in 1987 marked a new phase of nutrition teaching and research. In particular, it increased the links with the health sciences, for Mann is a medical doctor who was also appointed professor in the Department of Medicine and clinical endocrinologist for the health board. Human nutrition soon split out from its longstanding home in home science (which had by then become the Faculty of Consumer and Applied Sciences) and became an autonomous department within the Faculty of Science.

Research in the department also branched out from the previous work on micronutrients to new work on macronutrients and chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. With changes in society, over-nutrition had joined under-nutrition as a major concern. Of course, under-nutrition remained a big problem in the developing world, and as the department grew the 1996 appointment of Rosalind Gibson brought in new international expertise in the study of micronutrients, especially zinc and iron deficiency.

After World War II rationing was over, the only future health professionals to take nutrition very seriously were those studying home science in preparation for their postgraduate training as dietitians. More recently, that has changed, with nutrition widely recognised as highly significant for human health and included more extensively as part of health science programmes. And research is no longer confined to the Department of Human Nutrition, with some health science departments – Otago’s Department of Public Health in Wellington for instance – active in research into nutrition and health. In true interdisciplinary fashion, the university’s Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre brings together researchers from the departments of anatomy, biochemistry, medicine (in both Dunedin and Wellington), public health (Wellington), social and preventive medicine and human nutrition.

Do you have any stories to share from Otago’s long history of nutrition research? Any suggestions as to what Muriel Bell is investigating in the wonderful photograph taken in her laboratory? Some of that equipment looks intriguing!