Muriel Bell became a public figure, during and after the Second World War, by trying to improve the health of New Zealanders through good nutrition.
Her campaigning was based largely on her own scientific research. Her investigations included such things as the relationship of iodine to goitre, the vitamin contents of food such as fish oil and rosehips and the levels of serotonin in bananas. Muriel wrote 70 publications and 100 articles on nutrition for The Listener magazine.
In the 1940s, Muriel pushed for free milk in schools and for an increase in vitamin B1 in bread. Some of her nutrition messages are not out of place today – she encouraged people to eat more fruit and vegetables and less sugar, fat and meat. One of Muriel’s publications was about the effect of light on milk in bottles, yet lightproof plastic bottles were not introduced into our shops until 2013. The 1960 edition of her book Normal Nutrition: Notes for Nurses is still referred to by some practising nurses, such is the value of the contents.
A university student does not acquire a deep knowledge of a subject at university, but a worthy student goes on being a student after he has left university.Muriel Emma Bell
Many of the innovations introduced and campaigned for by Muriel were subsequently implemented. Muriel was instrumental in having iodine added to salt (to prevent the swelling of the thyroid gland called goitre) and fluoride to water (to reduce tooth decay). These are two subjects the accompanying timeline focuses on. Muriel’s work is shown as being part of over a hundred years of research and testing that continue to be relevant in our own lives. After all this time, there is still some opposition to both iodine and fluoride additions, on ethical as much as scientific grounds. Even if scientific studies over a long period show benefits of the additions, some people object to not having any choice over their consumption.
We can build a picture of Muriel as someone who improved the lives of many New Zealanders during her lifetime and continues to affect us in our own time. It was not easy for Muriel all the time – she was often the first or only woman to take up the roles she did. Her determination to get fluoride added to drinking water supplies earned her the nickname ‘Battle-axe Bell’.
The timeline below lets you see aspects of Muriel's life and work, and how her findings changed scientific thinking. A full timeline transcript is here.
See Diana Brown’s 2018 book, The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell.