The eczema lady

Born in 1914 and trained as a dental nurse, Gladys Reid was farming at Te Aroha when she identified zinc could prevent or reduce the impact of facial eczema.  She recieved an OBE for her work in 1983.  Annette Taylor interviewed Gladys for the NZ Herald in 2000.  Gladys died in 2006, just before her 92 birthday.  Here is her story.

Photo of Gladys Reid“WHAT a marvellous bunch of girls you are – my guess is you’ll all be married within three years,” so said Prime Minister Peter Fraser to the first 32 graduates of dental school in 1937.

Gladys Reid was among the marvellous bunch and within three years she had married and left the dental profession. But Peter Fraser went on to say that he had a longer view – “you are now educated to a level where you can educate yourselves. You will be a leaven for society.”

Now a formidible 86, and with an OBE to her name, Gladys Reid is credited with finding the connection between zinc and facial eczema, a disease caused by a toxic fungus which grows on pasture responsible for untold animal suffering and millions of dollars’ damage annually to New Zealand agriculture.

Tea with Gladys

Sitting in her sunny kitchen, surrounded by thoroughly thumbed textbooks, the woman some knew as ‘mad Glad’ makes a strong cup of tea and sits back to talk about her life. It hasn’t been easy. For many years her ideas were disregarded and denigrated by the local scientific community.

Born in 1914, Gladys was a member of a third generation farming family in Tauranga, then a small town of only 2000 people. Career-wise, there weren’t too many options in Tauranga.

“Most children left school at 14 to become housemaids or work in the drapers or butcher shop. I was the only girl among 60 to matriculate.”

Gladys’s mother, a trained teacher who was educated in the previous century, brought her three children up to value education – “We weren’t going to work in a shop.” After seeing an ad which said dental clinics were being built ‘all over’, Gladys enrolled for the two year course in Wellington. The course was a tough one, 44 hours a week and only two weeks’ holiday.

“The reason for this was to get dental nurses accepted by the public as a well-educated group, this was why our knowledge of physiology and nutrition was needed. It was drummed into us that to be accepted we had to be 10 per cent better than dentists.”

The trouble with educating girls

The prevailing view, she said, was that it was a waste of time educating girls – “once you got married, you had to leave.”

Peter Fraser’s prediction proved accurate – Gladys met and married local body executive George Reid in 1939 and the couple had three boys. When the youngest was six, she returned to dental nursing and remained in the profession for 10 years.

The Reids moved to Te Aroha in 1948, where, a few years later, a friend advised them to get some land. “I decided we’d only grow more moss if we stayed put, so in the 1950s I became a farmer. Everyone thought my husband ran the farm.”

Gladys’s father died when she was 10 – and her mother took on much of the day to day running of the family’s business interests. Gladys said it never occurred to her that women shouldn’t be involved in financial management. “I didn’t realise women couldn’t get bank loans, when I bought the farm I did it all on bridging finance, and it stayed that way for years.”

Facial eczema was rampant that autumn. “The misery and suffering of the animals concerned me greatly, it shattered me.”

Advice from George

One day it was too much and she said “Oh hell, I’m going home, I’m not staying in this game anymore.”

George however, offered no sympathy: “Well, do something about it,” he said.

She recalled her dental training and specifically work on pellagra, a photo-sensitive disease which results from malnutrition and Niacin deficiency. She collared a visiting vet and asked if she could to borrow some books. “Two or three days later they turned up and I read until two in the morning.”

One of the books was from the Agricultural Research Service of America and she wrote and asked how she could receive their material.

“There was nothing any good here. In those days you had to get a special consent from the Reserve Bank, that you’re doing ‘agricultural research’ before you could purchase overseas material.”

She did this, and received their publications for many years. “One of the titles was Toward The New Order, and I said to George ‘I’ll order that, because what I want to know isn’t known yet.’

On the basis of her studies, she began treating her stock with Niacin and in 1959 she discovered papers which described zinc as the co-factor of this vitamin. From her dental training she was familiar with the role of zinc oxide paste as an anti-inflammatory agent in tooth ache.

‘That’s it!’

She began administering zinc oxide to calves sheltering under hedges. One day when she approached with her concoction, the calf ran away.

“I said ‘that’s it!’ and threw it into a nearby water trough.” From then on, this was her preferred method of administering the zinc, and farmers still do it today.

By 1969, she had purchased the farm next door. This gave her the opportunity to test the zinc theory by dosing one farm and not the other. When facial eczema hit the district that season, milk production on the untreated block, along with neighbouring farms, fell by 30 per cent. Production on the treated farm fell only by 9 per cent, with no clinical eczema cases.

Regarded with respect overseas, her work was not well received in New Zealand, “They treated me like a fool. Once two scientists came to our farm and laughed at us, saying our cows were too fat.”

“The farmers thought I was a big joke too. They’re apologising to me now, saying they were gullible, and believed the scientists and at the time considered me a crank.

“My husband said ‘Glad, if you keep on with all this, they’ll crucify you.’ And I said, ‘George, I’ll develop the hide of a rhinoceros.’ But of course I didn’t, it hurt me to the core. But I wouldn’t give in. My family always stood by me. My son said ‘don’t worry mum, they’ll all be at your doorstep when their fingers get burned.’

Up until 1974 she believed it was a matter of zinc deficiency – in that year she found a paper outlining how high doses of zinc would protect the liver from damage by toxins.

Ovation from farmers

At the Ruakura Farmers Conference in 1975 Gladys received a standing ovation from the audience. But scientists remained cautious. In 1975 the Animal Remedies Board warned farmers that zinc in water troughs was toxic to stock.

In 1981 official advice was still to spray toxic pastures with fungicides. Then a huge outbreak of facial eczema occurred. “Half a million breeding ewes died, several million lambs, thousands of cows and calves – my phone was ringing red hot, just as my son had said it would.”

The following year zinc treatment was officially recommended for facial eczema prevention and Gladys got her OBE in 1983. That year she was invited to an international nutrition conference in America, where she spoke on the role of zinc in liver protection.

In 1981 a scientist friend told Gladys to go on to something different, so she turned her attention to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and began reading literature on the subject. Today she has published more than 20 articles in a British journal, Medical Hypotheses, with more than 500 reprint requests for one paper.

She adds she’s never had a request from New Zealand. In 1988 she attended another international conference on SIDS, this one is Graz, Austria. Another article is due this month and Gladys says there’s more work yet to be done.

Gladys Reid stresses she is very ordinary. “I was in the right place, at the right time.”

But she is also proof of Peter Fraser’s other prediction made 64 years ago – that education is never wasted.

Click here for the NZ Herald’s obituary on Gladys Reid by Annette Taylor.

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2 thoughts on “The eczema lady

  • June 4, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you Annette for another very interesting article, I remember Gladys and all the great work she did in relation to eczema and zinc being a cure. True of the human species how eager they often are to ridicule others without listening or researching for themselves which equals ignorance and lack of knowledge.

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