Elizabeth Gregory was born in Dunedin on 4 March 1901 to Catherine Cameron and her husband, William Edgar Gregory, a printer. She was educated in Dunedin at Arthur Street School, St Andrew’s Collegiate School, Otago Girls’ High School and the School of Home Science at the University of Otago. In 1924 she graduated bachelor of home science and, after a short stint teaching at Iona College, returned to the School of Home Science as assistant lecturer. She gained the master’s degree in nutrition in 1929, before going to London to work with nutritionist Jack Drummond. She graduated PhD in biochemistry at University College, London, in 1932.
On her return to Dunedin, Gregory became lecturer in chemistry and nutrition at the School of Home Science. In 1941, following the retirement of Ann Strong, she was appointed professor of home science, dean of the faculty and warden of the home science hostels. She continued in these roles until her retirement in 1961, and in all that time was the only woman on the professorial board. Although she was said to lack the charisma of her predecessor, she gained greater acceptance among her university colleagues and was highly thought of in the academic world.
Gregory proved to be an active head of the Department of Nutrition. Small and dynamic, she was a respected teacher, researcher and graduate supervisor. She was affectionately known to students as ‘wee Bess’. One former student, Marion Robinson, recalled her weekly graduate seminars with their stimulating exchange of ideas with Muriel Bell, Helen Deem and any overseas visitors to the department. She worked hard to achieve international standards, and as a result many home science graduates gained positions of leadership and distinction in other countries.
As dean of the faculty, Gregory developed and extended the school’s teaching, curriculum and buildings. One major achievement was the establishment of the Design Department in 1948. She was also one of the organisers of the national appeal to help fund the Studholme Hall hostel, opened in 1961. That year, largely due to her perseverance, a two-floor extension – now known as the Gregory Wing – was added to the school’s teaching facilities, while improvements were made to the old building.
During the 1940s and 1950s there were nutritional controversies which led to debate in the wider community. Gregory made formal submissions on several of these issues, including the iodisation of salt, pasteurisation of milk and fluoridation of water, supporting scientific intervention in the interests of public health and nutrition. She was also co-author with E. C. G. Wilson of a book, Good nutrition: principles and menus , first published in 1939 or 1940, which was widely used by parents, schools and nurses into the 1960s.
Elizabeth Gregory was associated with a wide range of professional and educational organisations. She was a foundation member in 1937 of the Nutrition Committee of the Medical Research Council, and later of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand. In 1942 she was a member of the consultative committee on the post-primary curriculum which produced the Thomas report, in which it was recommended that homecraft be a core subject for girls. In 1945 she was a member of the consultative committee on adult education. Later she became a member of Otago University’s Regional Council of Adult Education and of the National Council of Adult Education. She promoted the recognition of dietetics as a profession in New Zealand as a member of the Dietitians Committee (1948–50) and the Dietitians Board of the Department of Health (1951–61), and as an ex officio executive member of the New Zealand Dietetic Association from its foundation in 1943 until 1961. She was also a member of the Advisory Council for the Otago Home Economics Association (1939–61) and its patron (1957–61). At an international level, she served for two five-year terms as a member of the International Federation of Home Economics.
Gregory’s services to education and the community were recognised by honours and awards, including a visitor’s grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1940; fellowship of the Institute of Chemistry in 1943; a Coronation Medal in 1953; and appointment as an OBE in 1961. She was made emeritus professor of home science in 1962 and awarded the honorary degree of LLD in 1967 – the first New Zealand woman graduate to be so honoured. A member of the Otago University Association of Home Science Alumnae (later the Association of Home Science Alumnae of New Zealand), Gregory was elected an honorary member in 1962. In further recognition of her services to home science the alumnae commissioned artist William Sutton to paint her portrait to hang at Studholme Hall.
In retirement she had more time for family, friends and overseas travel. She played bridge, was an avid reader, liked motoring, and played tennis and (later) bowls. She was a member of the Dunedin branch of the YWCA, Otago Women’s Club and the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women. Up to the year of her death she wrote an annual Christmas letter which she sent to many former students, staff members, professional associates and friends. Health problems clouded her latter years. In spite of pain and drastic surgery for cancer of the palate she remained courageous to the end. She died in Dunedin on 22 October 1983.
In 1985 a fund was set up by the Association of Home Science Alumnae of New Zealand to provide two or more Elizabeth Gregory studentships each year for postgraduate study. Then, in 1988, the association established the Elizabeth Gregory Bursary, awarded annually to the undergraduate student with the highest overall level of attainment enrolling for postgraduate study in the School of Consumer and Applied Sciences. These awards commemorate the major contribution this greatly loved and admired woman made to home science.