Hawke Centre Inaugural Chair and Patron
The Hon Dr Basil Hetzel AC
Dr Hetzel's pioneering work led to our understanding of the effects of iodine deficiency on brain development – and the importance of incorporating iodized salt in the diet to prevent brain damage in newborns.
Dr. Hetzel's research team in Papua New Guinea (1964-1972) established that brain damage could be prevented by correction of iodine deficiency before pregnancy. This groundbreaking research led him to begin a worldwide campaign to incorporate iodized salt into the diets of more than two billion people in some 130 countries where iodine is lacking.
The World Health Organization now recognizes that iodine deficiency is the most common preventable cause of brain damage in the world today.
Dr. Hetzel's efforts have prevented brain damage in millions of children. We honour his vision, leadership and discovery.
Dr Basil Hetzel archival collection
Dr Hetzel’s archival collection is held by the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library and is stored in the Hetzel room at the University’s City East campus library. The primary purpose of the collection is to provide access for researchers to a consolidated record of the distinguished contribution by the Hon. Dr Basil Hetzel to public health, both national and international, including his contribution to the elimination of iodine deficiency disorders through the work of the International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders.For further information please contact the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library or search our UniSA Research Archive.
Recipient of the 2007 Prince Mahidol Award for his pioneering work on IDD (Iodine Deficiency Disorders)
King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand personally conferred Thailand's most prestigious medical award, the Prince Mahidol Award, on The Hon Dr Basil Hetzel and two other recipients in Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok on January 30, 2008.
The Prince Mahidol Foundation was set up in 1992 to honor the centenary of the Prince Mahidol, the father of King Bhumibol who was a doctor by training and is credited for helping to introduce modern medicine to Thailand. The Prince Mahidol Award has been granted to 47 medical innovators since 1992. They are conferred annually upon individuals or institutions which have demonstrated outstanding and exemplary contributions to the advancement of medical and public health services for humanity throughout the world. Each award consists of a medal, a certificate, and the sum of US$50,000.The three winners of the 2007 awards were picked from among 69 nominees from 35 different countries. The 2007 award was conferred on Professor Axel Ullrich, Director of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute in Germany for the field of medicine, Dr Basil Hetzel, Chairman Emeritus of the ICCIDD, Australia for the field of public heath and Dr Sanduk Ruit, Medical Director of Tilganga Eye Centre, Nepal for the field of public health.
Dr Hetzel extensively studied the adverse effects of iodine deficiency upon human health, particularly on the development of the human brain. He showed that severe iodine deficiency can lead to maternal and fetal hypothyroidism, which causes endemic cretinism and mental retardation. His research clearly demonstrated that these disorders can be prevented by providing iodine to women during the reproductive period. Dr Hetzel coined the term ‘Iodine Deficiency Disorders’, and was one of the founders and is Chairman Emeritus of the ICCIDD. Dr Hetzel's extensive work against iodine deficiency have made a significant contribution to the proper development of human populations around the world, including Thailand. As quoted in the Thai press, Dr Hetzel said it was a great honor to receive the award because the award has been conferred on a person who worked for others in the field of public health. He said seeing patients recover and lead a normal life was the inspiration for him to conduct his work and research.
Announced by the National Trust as a National Living Treasure on 16 March 2004
Basil Hetzel is a man on whom academic and community honours have rightly been bestowed, in recognition of his prodigious contributions:
- to medicine,
- to academic institutions,
- and to Australian life.
Basil Hetzel was born in London of Australian parents in 1922 and has
chosen to spend most of his life in Adelaide. But his horizons, his vision
and his influence stretch far beyond state and national borders.
A graduate of the University of Adelaide in medicine in the 1940s, Dr Hetzel soon decided that medical research was his passion – though his genuine interest in, and compassionate concern for people in all walks of life would have made him an excellent GP, or a sympathetic psychiatrist – a specialty which he briefly contemplated.
Research in the areas of blood pressure, stress and the effects of cortisone took him to the United States on a Fulbright Research Scholarship in the 1950s. His work there on stress and thyroid diseases, was groundbreaking. Although we take such connections for granted today, Dr Hetzel’s research was at the forefront of modern understandings of the impact of emotional disturbance on physiological health.
Further training in endocrinology in the UK gave him some experience with radioactive iodine for the study of the thyroid gland. While in the UK he also absorbed the work of European doctors dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War. As a result he became further convinced that his belief in the connection between body, mind and spirit was well founded. This belief in the whole person, nurtured too by his deep personal commitment to Christianity, has been pivotal to all areas of his work, throughout his adult life.
Returning to Australia in 1956, Dr Hetzel was appointed to The University of Adelaide, and established a research department and an endocrine diseases clinic at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. It was here that strands of his earlier research work came together, and he uncovered the scientific and medical connections that would enable him and his colleagues to improve the lives of millions of people, especially in developing countries.
Goitre was common among the people of the mountains of Papua New Guinea and his team, working with the Public Health Department of the then Territory showed that it was due to iodine deficiency. Building on that work his team was able to show that the associated form of severe mental retardation, cretinism, could be completely prevented by correction of the iodine deficiency before pregnancy.
From that point began the worldwide campaign which has consumed the second half of Basil Hetzel’s life – to incorporate iodized salt into the diet of those communities where iodine is lacking, and where intellectual disability and deformity result. More than 2 billion people in 130 countries live in areas that put them at risk. To have made a dent in such statistics is a formidable achievement.
But Basil Hetzel has done just that. In the 1980s the researcher became the public health campaigner. With support from AusAID he achieved success through carefully explaining the facts – over and over again – to governments, the United Nations, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, to the World Bank and to community groups, all of whom have provided funds and support. There is now a global partnership, which had achieved coverage of 70% of households by 2000.
His persistence, determination, stubborn-ness, indefatigable commitment to the cause and sheer hard work have meant that – from a tiny office in the Women’s and Children’s Hospital at North Adelaide – he initiated, with international colleagues, the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, involving over 700 scientists and other public health professionals from 90 countries. From 1985 he served as Executive Director for 10 years and a further 6 years as Chairman, only recently retiring in 2001, when he became Chairman Emeritus.
Though this might have been achievement enough, Dr Hetzel’s concerns in the field of public health have not been limited to the area of iodine deficiency. He has also directed his energy and influence to community health issues – including Aboriginal health. As a public educator, he reached tens of thousands as the ABC’s Boyer Lecturer in 1971under the title ‘Life & Health in Australia” and his Penguin book, Health and Australian Society, published in 1974 sold just on 40,000 copies.
Over the period 1956-1985 Dr Hetzel served, in turn, as Reader and then Michell Professor of Medicine at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, University of Adelaide; Foundation Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, and the First Chief of the CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition.
The University of South Australia conferred the award of Doctor of the University on its former Chancellor in 1999. As Professor Denise Bradley, the Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia has observed of him: he was ‘a force for decency, humanity and civility – a force for good’. As Chancellor from 1992-1998, his role in the formative years of the University was crucial in determining its mission and directions. His conviction that universities must themselves contribute to the public good was a guiding beacon. He also initiated the discussions that led to the University’s statement of the qualities it wishes to engender in its graduates.
Dr Hetzel has been a past Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and fulfilled this role with dignity and distinction.
For his work in overcoming iodine deficiency, Dr Hetzel was honoured in China by appointment as Honorary Professor at the Tianjin Medical University in 1989. He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1990 and was awarded the RSL Anzac Peace Prize in 1997.
On 5 October 2001 His Excellency Sir Eric Neal, then Governor of South Australia formally named the Clinical Research Centre at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital as ‘The Basil Hetzel Institute for Medical Research’.
As Chair of the University’s Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, Dr Hetzel’s connection with the world of education continues. Dr Hetzel has enthusiastically embraced the Centre’s agenda to promote public understanding of the issues, which shape Australian identity and civil society.
The 2005 Adelaide Festival of Ideas was dedicated to Dr Hetzel.