Private life and public record, Kate Hannah

The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell
Diana Brown
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531304

Perhaps some are surprised that a scientist whose impact on New Zealand’s health, particularly the health of women and children, could have been, up until now, overlooked – but even this well-written, timely biography reveals much about how women’s lives and careers in the past are hidden from view.

Muriel Bell (1898-1974), pioneering nutritionist, public health professional, academic researcher and civil servant – described in this new biography as identifying “most strongly as Dr Muriel Bell” – remains an enigmatic figure despite Brown’s extensive research, which she acknowledges: “it is hard to write a life mainly from the public record, supplemented with some oral testimony from family members, former colleagues and students.” 

This opaqueness is a feature of writing the lives of women – even women whose lives intersected with key individuals and actions of the quite recent past. In focusing on Bell’s career, rather than life, Brown tends to contextualise actions and events within a public health lens, largely because of the available records which connect Bell to this, her life’s work. However, this focus does not allow much space for reflection or speculation. Thus key, utterly shaping life events remain unexplored. Brown notes that Bell’s “late childhood was clouded by losses” – then lists within two paragraphs: the death of her older brother, Francis, from complications after appendicitis; the birth and then death of her younger sister, Jessie, who is described as being “entrusted to Muriel’s care”; followed by the description of Bell’s mother’s death in a tram accident, after which Bell’s father was “unwell”. 

During this series of tragic events, Muriel was aged between seven and nine, and by the time she was 11 she would also face: removal from Murchison, her birthplace, to Richmond; the marriage of her father to the local postmistress; and the birth of two more younger sisters. Brown summarises: “it is impossible to know how the multiple deaths in the immediate family affected Muriel’s development.” While grappling with the issue of records – there are some newspaper articles referring to her father, and to her mother’s death in a tragic accident – biographers, particularly biographers of women, are stuck. That there is no record of Muriel’s distress, or the impact that these deaths might have had on future decisions, doesn’t mean she didn’t experience this, nor that this wasn’t instrumental in her life’s course, but because of the lack of archival sources, Brown moves swiftly on to university, wherein Bell starts to take shape within extant archives.

Brown touches on the social and cultural changes which were taking place during Bell’s education and early career – noting the impact of WWI on both university places for women and the availability of roles for women within the university system, such as tutors, demonstrators and assistants, due to the absence of men. The emergence of the field of public health, in part a response to the devastating influenza epidemic which had immediately followed the war, is another contextual focus, with brief mention of eugenics and the notion of “racial fitness” which typified medicine and medical training in the first half of the 20th century. She also describes Bell’s university commitment to Christian socialism, which soon waned, but resulted in “a lifelong commitment to pacifism.” 

Bell’s position as a pioneer – one of the few women medical students; only the second woman in New Zealand to be awarded the research degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1926; her service as a lecturer in physiology, one of the early women academics at the Otago Medical School, between 1923-1927; her service as a foundational member of the Medical Research Council, established 1937; her appointment, in 1940, as New Zealand’s first state nutritionist – is contextualised within meticulous detail of the political and socio-political decisions of the time. Without the immediate voice of Dr Bell, except in a few instances, it is hard, sometimes, to tease out the actors from the action. 

When Brown describes the decision by the wartime government to appoint a state nutritionist, the letters from Bell she quotes are all to do with concern for the status of her mentor, John Malcolm: “I feel that what I shall do will depend on whether you have any plans for Dr Malcolm’s future or not.” Somehow, Bell’s decision – as a noted pacifist, married to a committed pacifist, and friend of Archibald and Millicent Baxter – to undertake a role as state nutritionist in Peter Fraser’s wartime government appears triangulated by the concerns or needs of men – Malcolm’s status, Fraser’s recommendations, her husband Jim Saunders’ death in May 1940. As a reader, I want more about this than “her desire to put all her efforts into serving the welfare of women and children apparently overrode any doubts about the morality of war.”

Brown’s biography, The Unconventional Career of Dr Muriel Bell, is just that – a biography of a career with a focus on the public health and related political contexts which the biographer has chosen – or been forced to choose, due to the availability of sources. As such, it is a hugely useful book for those interested in the ways in which health and nutrition have been and are still understood in New Zealand, and those with an interest in the ways in which women’s lives and careers are still hard to find. It is those “hard to find” touchstones – the impact of all those deaths, her experiences as that pioneer, that trailblazer, her marriages, her death (which family talk about as suicide) – which remain just out of reach in this biography. 

Kate Hannah is a research fellow in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland.

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Posted in Biography, Health, Non-fiction, Review
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