Story: Medical research

In the quest to understand the human body and keep communities well, New Zealanders have been embarking on important medical research projects since the late 19th century. Some research is funded privately and some by the government.

Story by Derek Dow
Main image: An illustration from John Halliday Scott's 1893 paper on Māori and Moriori skulls

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Early days

The first medical research in New Zealand was undertaken by individuals. However, the report of the 1919 New Zealand Influenza Commission emphasised medical research’s importance. Following that, the Health Act 1920 specified that the Health Department should take a strong role.

Medical Research Council

The New Zealand Medical Research Council – a committee of the Health Department – held its first meeting in 1937. A lot of the research work it commissioned was carried out at the Otago Medical School. At first it focused on four areas – diet, iodine deficiency, hydatids (a disease carried by dogs) and tooth decay. Tuberculosis and obstetrics (childbirth) were soon added to the list.

The Medical Research Council became independent from the Health Department in 1950. It expanded into new fields of research and introduced fellowships to attract and promote young researchers.

Independent research bodies

Several independent research bodies were established in the 1920s and 1930s. These included the New Zealand Obstetrical Society, the Otago Medical School Research Society, and the New Zealand branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign.

The Life Insurance Medical Research Fund of Australia and New Zealand was set up in 1951 to fund research in both countries. In 1955 a group of Auckland doctors and businesspeople founded the Auckland Medical Research Foundation. Similar organisations followed in other centres.

The 1960s saw the establishment of the National Diabetes Association, the New Zealand Dental Research Foundation and the National Heart Foundation. The Child Health Research Foundation was set up in 1971.

Recent developments

In 1990 the Medical Research Council was replaced by the Health Research Council (HRC). Health funding was limited and there was less focus on biomedical research and more on public health. The HRC was made up of committees for biomedical research, public health research, Māori health, and ethics.

In 2020 leading New Zealand research institutions included the New Zealand Brain Research Institute in Christchurch and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington. The Malaghan Institute (part of Victoria University of Wellington) focused on finding cures for cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, infectious diseases, asthma and allergies.

How to cite this page:

Derek Dow, 'Medical research', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Derek Dow, published 22 October 2014