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  • This timeline lets you see aspects of Muriel's life and work, and how these fit into a wider science picture of nutrition. A full transcript is underneath.

    Muriel Bell – nutritionist

    • Changing scientific ideas
    • Advances in research and actions
    • Biography


    Changing scientific ideas

    Each specialised field of science has key ideas and ways of doing things. Over time, these ideas and techniques can be revised or replaced in the light of new research. Most changes to key science ideas are only accepted gradually, tested through research by many people.

    Advances in research and actions

    All scientists build their research and theories on the knowledge of earlier scientists, and their work will inform other scientists in the future. A scientist may publish hundreds of scientific reports, but only a few are mentioned here.


    This part of the timeline outlines just a few events in the personal life of the featured person, some of which influenced their work as a scientist.


    1851 – Iodine and goitre research ignored

    Iodine is shown to prevent goitre in children, but these findings are ignored for 70 years.

    1920 – New research prompts iodine action

    In the 1920s investigations again show that taking iodine prevents goitre. This time, something is done to improve public health. Iodine is added to salt in New Zealand and other countries so it becomes part of everyone’s food.

    Image: Public domain. Photo by Martin Finborud (1861–1928).

    1950s – More long-term research brings fluoride action

    After 50 years of research and testing show positive effects, fluoride is added to many public water supplies in New Zealand and other countries.

    2000 – Benefits of iodine and fluoride confirmed

    After many years of use, iodine and fluoride are confirmed as having strong health benefits.


    1851 – Iodine and goitre

    French chemist Gaspard Adolphe Chatin is first to state clearly that goitre (a swelling of the thyroid gland) is caused by iodine deficiency. Tests on children show that taking iodine can prevent goitre, but these findings are ignored.

    Image: Public domain

    1917 – Iodine helps children

    American pathologist David Marine starts large-scale test on the effect of iodine on goitre in school children. By 1920 he has shown that taking iodine can prevent goitre.

    1922 – First iodised salt

    Switzerland becomes the first country to add iodine to salt as a way of reducing goitre in its population.

    1924 – Iodised salt in New Zealand

    Iodised salt is introduced in New Zealand, as well as America.

    Image: © Roger & Alice Montgomery, Tryon County Bookshop

    1926 – Muriel Bell goitre research

    Muriel’s doctoral research is on goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency. This work contributed to the introduction of adding iodine to salt.

    1938 – Increased iodine

    Level of iodine in New Zealand salt increased (remains at this level in 2013).

    1940 – Fluoride and tooth decay

    Research over the last 40 years by dentist Frederick McKay and others in America establishes link between fluoride and tooth decay.

    Image: Public domain, courtesy of USCDC

    1945 – First fluoridation

    First American experimental fluoridation of public water supply in Grand Rapids, Michigan. By 1950 people have fewer teeth cavities.

    1952 – Muriel Bell and fluoride

    Muriel visits America and studies experiments on adding fluoride to public water to increase dental health. On return, she fights for fluoridation in New Zealand.

    Image: S14-589c Photograph of Dr Muriel Bell, Margaret Madill papers, r.6653. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago.

    1953 – Iodised salt works

    A survey shows that goitre in New Zealand children has been greatly reduced since introduction of iodised salt.

    1954 – Fluoride for New Zealand

    Fluoride first added to public water in Hastings. At this time New Zealand has the highest per-capita sugar consumption, and the worst teeth, in the world.

    1955 – Fluoride in toothpaste

    Launch of first clinically-proven fluoride-containing toothpaste in US. Fluoride had first been added to toothpaste in 1914, but its benefits were only proven after years of research.

    Image: Kenyon, Brand and Riggs, Cottontail Toothpaste/Facecloths. K E Niven and Co: Commercial negatives. Ref: 1/2-222449-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    1968 – More fluoride for New Zealand

    65% of the New Zealand population that has a public water supply receive fluoridated water. Evidence shows that fluoride makes teeth more resistant to decay and interferes with damaging bacterial growth.

    1997 – Iodine deficiency again?

    A survey generates new interest in iodine deficiency as a health issue.

    2002 – Less salt in diet, so less iodine

    Thyroid problems have increased in some New Zealand children. This may be linked to a reduced use of salt in the diet.

    2006 – Support for fluoridation

    The New Zealand Ministry of Health continues to support fluoridation, after reports over many years provide evidence of effectiveness and safety.

    2009 – Iodised salt in bread

    Iodised salt is added to bread in New Zealand.

    Find out more in the article: Iodine in our bread.

    Image: Gorgev, licensed from 123RF Ltd

    2010 – "Growing opposition

    From 2010 some people still question the need for iodine and fluoride addition. They would prefer to have a choice rather than be forced into having the additives in their food and water.

    2011 – Less tooth decay

    Just over half of New Zealand people get fluoridated water. Tooth decay is less in fluoridated areas.

    2013 – Continued criticism of fluoride use

    Some people continue to question effectiveness and safety of fluoride use. Much of the criticism is not aimed at the science but at the ethics of enforced medication and lack of personal choice.

    2016 – Proposed legislative changes

    The government proposes the Health (Fluoridation of Drinking water) Amendment Bill, allowing district health boards (DHBs) to direct local authorities to fluoridate community water supplies. The bill has a second reading in June 2017.

    2018 – Evidence for folic acid fortification

    A Royal Society Te Apārangi expert panel unanimously concludes that the benefits of mandatory fortification of packaged bread with folic acid outweigh possible, but unproven, adverse effects. Fortification will ensure more pregnant women will have access to folic acid to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Artisan breads are an option for people who prefer to opt out.


    2021 – Folic acid addition to bread

    Government announces that folic acid will be added to bread-making flour to reduce birth defects.


    1898 – Born in Murchison

    Muriel’s two siblings both die before she is 8. In 1907, her mother is killed in a Wellington tram accident, which also badly injures her father.

    1911 – At school in Nelson

    Starts at Nelson College for Girls, where she is later head girl.

    1916 – Starts university

    Encouraged into further education by her stepmother. Starts a BA course at Victoria University College but transfers to University of Otago Medical School after a year.

    1922 – Graduation

    Obtains Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery.

    1923 – Lecturer in physiology

    Becomes one of the first female academics at the University of Otago Medical School. Muriel is a lecturer until 1927.

    Image: Otago University and Medical School, Dunedin. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-09299-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    1926 – First woman MD

    Becomes first woman to be awarded Doctor of Medicine at University of Otago.

    1928 – Marriage

    Marries James Saunders. Keeps her maiden name, as this is the one she has used in early publications.

    1930 – Research in London

    Muriel, with her husband, goes to London and carries out research on vitamins. She stays for a time as pathologist at a hospital run by women.

    1935 – Return to New Zealand

    Becomes lecturer in physiology and experimental pharmacology at University of Otago Medical School.

    1937 – Medical Research Council

    Becomes a member of the new Medical Research Council, a post she keeps for 20 years.

    1937 – Board of Health

    Becomes the only woman member of the Board of Health. On the nutrition committee, she looks into the diets of poor people and Māori, and represents children and women. Stays on the Board until 1965.

    1939 – Good Nutrition

    Edits book Good Nutrition: Principles and Menus for the Medical Research Council.

    Image: © University of Waikato

    1940 – Public figure

    Becoming the first nutrition officer of the Department of Health makes Muriel a public figure. Works with scientists to increase vitamin B1 in bread. Her husband James dies this year.

    Image: Dr Muriel Bell, of Dunedin, who has been appointed nutritionist to the Department of Health. (Evening Post, 03 October 1940). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    1941 – War work

    Over the next few years, Muriel writes over 100 articles on nutrition for The Listener, encouraging the public to eat more fruit and vegetables, and less fat and sugar. Involved in wartime rationing and promoting increased vitamin C intake.

    1941 – Recognition

    Becomes Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry.

    1942 – Second marriage

    Marries Alfred Hefford.

    1945 – Free school milk

    Becomes the only woman member of the Central Milk Council. Pushes for provision of free school milk, and the pasteurisation of milk.

    Image: Two primary school girls drinking their school milk, Linwood, Christchurch. Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908–1972: Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Ref: 1/4-000032-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    1948 – Notes for Nurses

    Publishes Normal Nutrition: Notes for Nurses. The book becomes popular and is updated several times over the next 20 years.

    Image: © University of Waikato

    1950 – Cholesterol and the heart

    Starts research on the link between cholesterol and heart disease.

    1952 – Royal Society

    Becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand

    1956 – Rations for Antarctic

    Muriel prepares food rations for the men and dogs of Edmund Hillary’s 1956–57 trans-Antarctic expedition.

    Image: A shipment of eggs before loading for HMNZS Endeavour, with Sir Edmund Hillary, Mr JH Miller and Mr R Cawdrey. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1956/2852-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

    1957 – Husband dies

    Muriel’s husband Alfred Hefford dies.

    1959 – CBE

    Queen’s New Year’s Honours List announces Muriel as Commander of the British Empire.

    1968 – Honorary doctorate

    University of Otago presents Muriel with honorary doctorate.

    1974 – Dies in Dunedin

    Although officially retired, Muriel carries out nutrition work until the day she died in May 1974.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato Published 20 September 2017, Updated 8 July 2021 Referencing Hub media
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