6 Nov 2009

Diabetes expert Donald Beaven dies in house fire

6:15 am on 6 November 2009

Renowned diabetes specialist Sir Donald Beaven has died in a house fire in Little Akaloa, near Christchurch, a coroner has confirmed.

Provisional post-mortem findings indicate it is likely Sir Donald, 85, died of smoke inhalation during the fire on Wednesday.

Coroner Sue Johnson has opened an inquiry into the cause and circumstances of his death.

The Fire Service on Banks Peninsula is investigating the cause of the blaze.

Sir Donald was a Fulbright Fellow at Harvard and Professor of Medicine at the Medical School in Christchurch.

In 2004, he became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and was knighted earlier this year.

A tireless campaigner for the understanding and treatment of diabetes in New Zealand, he was instrumental in setting up diabetes societies around the country.

Don Beaven was born in 1924 and educated at Christ's College and Otago Medical School but he was not the usual student at either institution of the time.

Hardship and family dislocation during the Depression of the 1930s saw him in patched clothes at school where he was bullied.

At medical school, he was one of the scholarship students who felt bound to prove themselves in the old boy environment of the 1940s.

Karamea influential

He completed his degree in 1948 and after an internship at Christchurch Hospital, went to remote, rural Karamea as a resident doctor. His experiences there strengthened his humanitarian beliefs and developed his interest in how ill-health was linked with poverty and poor housing.

In 1951 he worked his passage to Britain and for the next 4 years was employed in teaching hospitals in London. He attended meetings of socialist clubs and came to know Nye Bevan, a leading Labour Party leftwinger and the chief architect of the British National Health Service.

He returned to Christchurch Hospital in 1955, later becoming the Foundation Professor of Medicine at the Christchurch School of Medicine, holding the position from 1970 to 1989 when he retired.

When Professor Beaven first started working in diabetes in the late 1950s, it was a relatively rare condition in New Zealand but now more than 115,000 New Zealanders have it and many more are thought to be undiagnosed.

Pioneering research

Sir Donald led ground-breaking research at the School of Medicine, pioneering many of the developments in diabetes care and forging partnerships of doctors, nurses, dietitians and patients. He used his overseas contacts to obtain funding and to attract high calibre people to work with him in Christchurch.

His voice was often raised against the medical bureaucracy and against agricultural interest groups which he said underestimated the growing threat of diabetes from diets increasingly rich in animal fat.

His interest in healthy food lead him to pioneer the growing of grapes for wine and later olives in Canterbury. He advised patients to rub olive oil into their feet to encourage circulation and help prevent amputations.

His writings were numerous, on diabetes and on wine. He became the wine writer for Epicurean magazine among other publications and was a senior judge in the national wine competitions between 1977 and 1988.

He was a keen climber in his younger days, completing some of the first ascents in the Southern Alps and climbing with Sir Edmund Hillary and George Lowe.

Professor Beaven was awarded many honours and awards, including a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard Medical School and a CBE for his services to medicine. In 2004 he became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and accepted the knighthood title in 2009.