Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clements, Frederick William (Fred) (1904–1995)

by James Gillespie

This article was published online in 2019

Frederick William Arthur Clements (1904–1995), public-health physician, researcher, and educator, was born on 18 September 1904 at Young, New South Wales, son of William Ernest Clements, railway clerk (later superintendent), and his wife Ida Ruth, née Brown, both New South Wales born. Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School, Fred studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1928), winning the Hinder memorial prize in 1928. Between 1928 and 1930 he was a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. After a brief attempt at medical practice in Queensland, destroyed by the Great Depression, he returned to Sydney. On 12 December 1931 at Lugar Brae Methodist Church, Waverley, he married Muriel Ellen Willis, a nurse. He completed diplomas of tropical medicine (1933) and public health (1934), and then a thesis on tropical ulcers (MD, 1937).

Appointed in 1931 as a medical officer at the new School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine—part of the Commonwealth Department of Health—at the University of Sydney, Clements spent some months in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea the following year before returning to Sydney. Teaching in the school’s diploma courses, he acted as a personal tutor to Papuan students. He pioneered the use of survey methods in Australian public health. His first work was on leprosy, in Penang, the Philippines, and New Guinea. In 1935 he led a medical survey of Papua.

Clements’s main interest shifted to Australian population health, particularly nutrition. A colleague, Jean McNaughton, recalled that he brought to his work ‘a fervent belief in the importance of adequate nutrition in achieving community health’ (Rogers 1995, 163). In 1936 Australia joined an international survey of household nutrition, led by the League of Nations Health Organization and the International Labour Organization. Clements directed the five-thousand-mile (8,000 km) trip through remote areas of New South Wales, South Australia, and Queensland, driving a converted Ford truck fitted with a mobile radiology laboratory and equipment for dental examinations and biochemical testing.

Between 1938 and 1949 Clements was director of the Australian Institute of Anatomy, Canberra, and from 1938 to 1969 he was chair of the nutrition committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council. During World War II he worked on the Australian Food Council’s food rationing standards. The institute set new standards in training survey researchers, leading to a major national study of diet in 1944. His research group built tables of the composition of foods. Students in the institute’s nutrition diploma staffed expeditions to the Territory of Papua-New Guinea (1947) and northern Australia (1947), and a nutrition unit from the institute joined the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. Against opposition, he successfully argued for the inclusion of women on the research teams for each of the three expeditions.

From May 1949 to July 1951 Clements was foundation chief of the World Health Organization’s nutrition division in Geneva. He steered WHO towards his interests in the health effects of micronutritional deficiencies, such as goitre and kwashiorkor. Returning to the public service, he was a lecturer at the Institute of Child Health in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney. He was made a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1960 and appointed OBE in 1967, recognising his role as the pioneer of research and academic training in nutritional science in Australia.

Alongside his numerous academic publications, Clements had a long-standing commitment to popular education in nutrition: You and Your Food (1967), co-authored with the dietitian Josephine Rogers, ran to six editions. His research focused on Aboriginal nutrition, especially of children, and on goitre in Tasmania. Contemporaries recalled a quietly efficient scientist, but passionate about the cause of improved nutrition and ‘a great social campaigner’ (Ash 2008, 298). One of his final ventures in academic life was with the Australian Government Commission of Inquiry into Poverty (the Henderson inquiry, 1972–75), investigating food consumption patterns in low-income families, using his students as interviewers.

Following his retirement in 1969, Clements continued to be active in his field. He remained honorary paediatrician at Karitane in Sydney—a position he had held since 1956—until 1974, and he supervised the University of Sydney’s postgraduate nutrition diploma from 1967 until 1975. That year he became a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences. From 1975 to 1976 he was the inaugural president of the Nutrition Society of Australia. In 1986 he published A History of Human Nutrition in Australia. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 22 May 1995 at Nerang, Queensland, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Our Elders, Our Stories, Our Culture.’ Nutrition and Dietetics 65, no. 4 (December 2008): 297–99
  • Gillespie, James. ‘The “Marriage of Agriculture and Health” in Australia: The Advisory Council on Nutrition and Nutrition Policy in the 1930s.’ In From Migration to Mining: Medicine and Health in Australian History, edited by Suzanne Parry, 44–54. Casuarina, NT: Historical Society of the Northern Territory, 1998
  • Rogers, Josephine. ‘Frederick William Clements 1904–1995.’ Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics 52, no. 3 (September 1995): 163–64
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Expert on Nutrition, Child Health.’ 17 June 1995, 10
  • Truswell, A. Stewart, Ian Darnton-Hill, and Beverley Wood. ‘NSA Lecture in Honour of Dr Frederick (Fred) WA Clements (1904–1995).’ Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 16, suppl. 3 (2007): S4–S7
  • Truswell, Stewart. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Citation details

James Gillespie, 'Clements, Frederick William (Fred) (1904–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clements-frederick-william-fred-28121/text35833, published online 2019, accessed online 19 October 2019.

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