Story: Medical research

Page 2. Medical Research Council, 1937 to 1990

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Research at Otago

Medical Research Council (MRC) funding was at first restricted to £5,000 per annum, with a large portion of the research work to be carried out at the Otago Medical School in Dunedin. The MRC chose to focus initially on four areas of investigation, each with a separate oversight committee:

  • nutrition
  • goitre
  • hydatid disease
  • dental caries.

Research was expanded in 1939 to investigate tuberculosis and obstetrics.

Each of these fields reflected existing research. The Otago Medical School, for example, already had a Hydatid Disease Research and Prevention Department headed by Professor Louis Barnett, who had pursued this interest since the 1890s. Charles Hercus directed Otago research into goitre.

Nutrition, under Muriel Bell, assumed increasing importance during the Second World War.

Despite the constraints of war, there was further expansion in the 1940s. Clinical medicine was added, under Horace Smirk. A future Nobel Prize winner, John Eccles, led neurophysiology and neuropathology research during his six years in New Zealand. An acceptance of wider responsibility for the south-west Pacific saw the creation of an Islands Territories Research Committee in 1946.

Muriel Bell and public health

Muriel Bell’s research into nutrition had a significant impact on public health. She delivered dietary advice through the popular press during the Second World War. Bell became an advocate for milk in schools, for adding fluoride to public water supplies, and for diets that would reduce cholesterol. Her public health campaigns often met concerted opposition, but ‘battle-axe Bell’, as she dubbed herself, fought on regardless.

Consolidation and expansion

In the 1950s and 1960s the range of medical research carried out in New Zealand expanded considerably. The MRC, formerly within the Health Department, achieved independent status under the Medical Research Council Act 1950. From 1951 the MRC assumed both an advisory and a controlling function. Initially the council focused on consolidating ongoing projects, but by 1954 the time was ripe to expand into new fields of research.

The MRC introduced fellowships to promote research by attracting dedicated young researchers. The first was awarded in 1949 to Raymond Blakley, who later worked on biochemistry in Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research. By 1961, 10 junior research scholarships at the University of Otago were also funded by the MRC. The number of fellowships and scholarships increased markedly during the early 1970s, from one in 1969 to 23 in 1974.

In 1961 the council established 14 research units or equivalent groups. By 1975 six of the original groups had been disbanded, including Nutrition (on the retirement of Muriel Bell in 1964) and Hydatids (transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1972). The MRC was by this time responsible for 102 units, groups or projects, and had a forward planning committee to help identify priority areas.

From the early 1970s the council instituted a process of systematic scientific review to evaluate all research proposals.

Sheep, seals and premature babies

By investigating the hormones of foetal sheep, Graham ‘Mont’ Liggins made a discovery that saved the lives of tens of thousands of premature infants. He found that administering corticosteroids to women about to give birth to premature infants helped develop the foetal lungs, preventing the newly born babies dying from respiratory distress syndrome. Liggins’s foetal research also included a summer in Antarctica. There he studied how deep-diving female Weddell seals were able to supply their foetuses with enough oxygen.

Significant research

Dick Purves became director of the Thyroid Research Department at the University of Otago, later renamed the Endocrinology Research Unit. Purves and Walter Griesbach greatly advanced the understanding of the gland’s physiology and cytology (cell structure and function). Working with T. H. Kennedy and Duncan Adams, Purves identified the cause of Graves’ disease and the drugs that could treat it.

In 1963 William Liley conducted the first successful intrauterine blood transfusion. His research into Rhesus haemolytic disease led to new ways of detecting the severity of the condition in utero and treating it prior to birth.

Ian Prior was the founder of epidemiology in New Zealand. Appointed inaugural director of the Wellington Medical Unit (1960–72), Prior concentrated initially on Māori health before conducting the first epidemiological research in Rarotonga and establishing the Tokelau Island Migrant Study in 1967. His work linked lifestyle diseases to migration, and to social and environmental factors.

How to cite this page:

Derek Dow, 'Medical research - Medical Research Council, 1937 to 1990', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Derek Dow, published 22 Oct 2014