Medical research in New Zealand was initially conducted on a personal level and in an ad hoc fashion. The first substantive work was by John Halliday Scott, who was professor of anatomy at the Otago Medical School in Dunedin from 1877 to 1914. In 1893 he published research into the biological origins of Māori.
In the 1910s Henry Pickerill, dean of the Otago Dental School, investigated immunity to dental disease among the Urewera people, a study partly funded by London’s Royal Society of Medicine.
Pioneering plastic surgeons
Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill were pioneers of facial reconstructive plastic surgery. Both treated war casualties at St Mary’s Hospital at Sidcup, England, in 1918. Gillies, born in Dunedin, studied medicine at Cambridge. Pickerell was English, but had been dean of the Otago School of Dentistry from 1907, a position he returned to in 1919. Gillies ran another British plastic surgery unit during the Second World War, assisted by New Zealanders Archibald McIndoe and Rainsford Mowlem.
The report of the 1919 New Zealand Influenza Commission stressed the importance of medical research work. It recommended attaching a representative to the newly formed British Medical Research Council to report back to the New Zealand government. Following that, the Health Act 1920 specified that the Health Department should promote or carry out research into public health and preventing or treating disease.
In 1926 Robert Makgill of the Health Department, while visiting Britain, talked to the British Medical Research Council and the Ministry of Health. His aim was to find ways of co-ordinating research with British institutions and to extend the department’s own research.
In 1920–21 Charles Hercus and Eleanor Baker, working for the Health Department, researched iodine deficiency and goitre among Canterbury school children. Muriel Bell’s 1926 Otago Medical School thesis on basal metabolism in goitre provided still more information. These studies, along with major research by Robert Shore and R. L. Andrew of the Dominion Laboratory, helped persuade the government to introduce iodised salt to combat iodine-deficiency goitre. The effective proportion of iodine to be added to salt was determined by further research by Herbert Dudley (Dick) Purves, at Otago. This knowledge led to the virtual elimination of goitre in New Zealand.
Otago Medical School
By the mid-1920s the Otago Medical School was conducting research into:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- acute poliomyelitis
- Māori tuberculosis.
Charles Hercus, a strong advocate of medical research, was appointed professor of public health and bacteriology at the Otago Medical School in 1921. Hercus became Dean of the Otago Medical School in 1937, a position he held until 1958. Throughout this time he made research a priority for the school, and in January 1937 he called for a new body, a medical research council, to coordinate ‘all epidemiological, clinical and laboratory research on medical and dental problems.’1
The Nazi persecutions of the 1930s brought a number of significant medical researchers to New Zealand. Franz and Marianne Bielchowsky were forced to leave Germany because of Franz’s Jewish ancestry. After medical work in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, they came out to New Zealand. The Bielchowskys became noted researchers at Otago, with Franz working on cancer and Marianne on immunology. Walter Griesbach was another researcher who fled Nazi Germany and ended up at Otago. Griesbach worked with Dick Purves on important thyroid research.
Foundation of the Medical Research Council
In the mid-1920s the Health Department began investigating ways of supporting more research. The Labour Party’s 1934 health manifesto, drawn up by Gervan McMillan, specifically called for adequate health research funding. With the election of a Labour government in 1935, the director general of health, Michael Watt, pushed ahead with plans for a medical research council. The New Zealand Medical Research Council (MRC) held its first meeting in December 1937. In a public announcement soon afterwards Health Minister Peter Fraser stressed the value of a centralised organisation to avoid overlap and unnecessary expense.