Vale Dr Basil Hetzel AC

Vale Dr Basil Hetzel AC. Photo by Tricia Watkinson / Newspix COMMUNITY

This month the University lost one of its most ardent champions.

Aged 94, Dr Basil Hetzel died peacefully on February 4 2017, leaving a positive and indelible mark on communities around the world.

His collaborative work as head of the endocrine diseases clinic at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, with the Papua New Guinea health research department, zeroed in on the relationship between iodine deficiency and brain damage – making conditions such as cretinism totally preventable with the simple inclusion of iodised salt in the diet of pregnant women.

That research, published in 1970 and his tireless work with the United Nations and through the organisation he founded, the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD), has transformed the health outcomes of billions of people at risk of iodine deficiency disorders from more than 130 countries.

Born in 1922, Dr Hetzel followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a doctor after graduating from Adelaide University in 1944.

Early in his career, he was deeply drawn to the importance of research in psychiatry and the relationship between physical and mental health. Later in his career he would go on to help found the South Australian Mental Health Association and with other members of that Association, to establish Lifeline.

He won a Fulbright Scholarship and studied in New York from 1951-54.

His work focussed on the relationship between stress and thyroid diseases such as goitre, something considered avant-garde, if not a bit way out at the time. What Dr Hetzel discovered during this time proved there was a strong link between emotional stress and the production of cortisone - in fact he found that emotional disturbance had an equivalent physiological impact on a patient as more studied injuries and infections.

After New York he secured a Research Fellowship in the Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism at St Thomas' Hospital, continuing to research the impact of stress. Work being done by his contemporaries with refugees and survivors of World War II convinced him further that both the spirit and the mind were significant partners in healing physical conditions.

His breakthrough research into iodine deficiency and the advocacy work he did internationally occupied much of his mid-career.

But public health and the psychosocial factors that impact good health were never far from his sight.
In 1968 he was appointed Foundation Professor of Social and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, and in 1971 he delivered the ABC’s Boyer Lecture series based on his book Health and Australian Society in which he made modern health discoveries accessible to everyday people. The book sold 40,000 copies.

He was appointed the first Chief of CSIRO’s Division of Human Nutrition where he worked for 10 years before “retiring”.

Vale Dr Basil Hetzel ACBut retirement was a misnomer.

He became Chancellor of UniSA in 1992 and held that position during some of the University’s most formative and challenging years through to 1998.

He travelled to South Africa for the very special conferral of Nelson Mandela as an honorary doctor of the University – an occasion he named as one of the most significant of his career.

Always an advocate for the power of education and for public access to education, he was a key advocate for the foundation of the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at UniSA. He was its chair from 1998 to 2007 and remained a patron of the organisation until his death. The Centre continues to provide access to free public lectures from a diverse range of international leaders and innovators.

Asked about the importance of education while he was still Chancellor at the University, Dr Hetzel said:

“Some people say education is expensive but I can only answer – try ignorance. Education is an investment not only in the science and technology it can advance and the enormous impact that can have on human history, but in the people it moulds, in the women and men who will lead our communities here in Australia and around the world.”

Speaking about Dr Hetzel’s contribution, UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd says Dr Hetzel made a truly significant impact on world health.

“His breakthrough research into iodine deficiency, his lifelong commitment to public health on a global scale but also here at home, has been enormous.

“Basil was man whose belief in humanity and the intrinsic dignity of mankind drove innovation and excellence in his career but also genuine care and compassion for everyone he encountered.

“He truly was a scholar and a gentleman and he will be missed by us all.”