At each Scientific Meeting of the Nutrition Society held in New Zealand, a free public lecture, is held in Muriel Bell's name. Please feel free to attend this years lecture, which in 2021 will be presented by Professor Sheila Skeaff.

  • Wednesday 8th December 2021, 5:30-6:30pm 
  • Online Event - recording to be made available in due course
  • Zoom Code: 84697542021
  • In person at Otago Uni: 7c9, Science 2, Otago Uni
  • Free to attend and open to the public.

Lick the plate clean: the intersection of food, nutrition, and waste.

This talk will describe my journey as an academic in human nutrition, from theory to practice. The phrase to "lick your plate clean" historically meant to eat everything on your plate, either from hunger or because the meal was so delicious. This talk will be a 2021 reinterpretation of the phrase and focus on food choice, good nutrition, and food waste.



Sheila Skeaff is a Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Otago. She has an MSc in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of Guelph (Canada) and a PhD in Human Nutrition from the University of Otago. Her primary research area has been the assessment of iodine status of sub-groups of the population, including children and pregnant women. Sheila is also interested in elucidating the consequences of mild iodine deficiency on normal growth and development, including cognition. Her work in iodine has involved collaborations in Australia, the USA, Switzerland, Norway, and China. She also conducts research on sustainable foods and diets, with an interest in the environmental literacy in university students and food literacy in children. Sheila is a steering committee member of Food Waste Innovation, a University of Otago Research Theme which measures food waste, develops reduction strategies, applies innovative technology, and works to modify producer and consumer behaviour around food loss and waste.




Bell, Muriel Emma   1898 - 1974 - Nutritionist, medical researcher

In 1926 Muriel Emma Bell became the first woman to be awarded an MD by the University of Otago. Her thesis, on basal metabolism in goitre, was supervised by Professor John Malcolm. This early research work established her reputation for doing research for the public good; it contributed to the introduction of iodised salt.

When the first Labour government established the Medical Research Council in 1937, Muriel Bell became a foundation member and she served for the following two decades. She was a member and later chair of its nutrition committee and also represented women and children on the Board of Health, of which she was the sole woman member, from 1937 to 1965. In 1940 the Labour government appointed Bell to the post that made her a public figure, as the first nutrition officer in the Department of Health. From this point until her retirement in 1964 she held two posts simultaneously, director of nutrition research at the Otago Medical School and state nutritionist, and she devoted all her energy to these responsibilities.

For many years Muriel Bell was active in numerous campaigns to improve people's health and well-being by improving their diet. One of her many goals was a safe, cheap milk supply. A champion of school milk to build strong bones and teeth, she was the only woman member of the Central Milk Council, established in 1945 after an inquiry into the supply of milk to the four main centres exposed its shortcomings. For the rest of her life she worked to advertise the benefits of drinking milk, 'our best single food'.

Bell paid particular attention to dental caries. She discovered that New Zealanders' teeth had little fluorine. After a sabbatical in the United States, based at Harvard University in 1952, when she interviewed doctors about experiments with fluoridated water supplies, she returned to fight for fluoridation in New Zealand. This campaign, in particular, prompted her to describe herself as 'Battle-axe Bell' because of the struggle she had against formidable opposition headed by Dove Myer Robinson, the mayor of Auckland, in the 1950s. She won the battle locally and from 1958 was a member of the Fluoridation Committee of the Department of Health.

In the 1950s she conducted research into cholesterol and heart disease. She tried in vain to persuade insurance companies to collect statistics on obesity. Long interested in Maori and Pacific island diets, she was invited to undertake nutrition surveys in Fiji and Western Samoa in the 1950s. Such was her reputation that she prepared the food rations for the men and dogs of Edmund Hillary's trans-Antarctic expedition in 1956--57.

Muriel Bell was recognised in her lifetime, but belatedly. She became a fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry in 1941, the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1952, the Royal Society of Medicine, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1959. That year she was appointed a CBE. Her public-spirited efforts were acknowledged when in 1968 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago: 'Dr Bell campaigned with unexampled energy to make the findings of research available for the common benefit'.

Kind, warm and caring, Bell had 'infinite patience' with people and was supportive to her staff. Always innovative, she entertained her students with her ingenuity and sense of fun. Unusual, at times bizarre in her behaviour, she startled visitors, for example, by offering them a cup of tea while she was testing rats. If the kitchen bench was full, she would work on the floor. She wore plastic sandals because she had hammer toes, and amused and perplexed friends with her unreliable cars. She died on 2 May 1974 in Dunedin, active to the end: an article on the karaka berry was found in her typewriter.

Bell, M. E. Papers, 1911--1974. MS 1078. DUHOObit. New Zealand Medical Journal 79, No 518 (June 1974): 1082--1083Obit. Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 103 (1974--75): 96--99Sargison, P. A. Notable women in New Zealand health. Auckland, 1993