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Donald Beaven

20 July 2023

Emeritus Professor Donald Ward Beaven was medical scientist recognised round the world for his work as a researcher and advocate for people with diabetes. He received the honours of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1988, and Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM). Learn more about this local hero.


Emeritus Professor Donald Ward Beaven – "Don" to his very many friends – can surely be regarded as a South Pacific 'Renaissance Man'. He combines his medical wisdom with wide cultural, historical and botanical interested, and is a New Zealand authority on viniculture and olive growing.

From his beginnings as a young general practitioner in the remote West Coast community of Karamea in 1949, he has become in his maturity a scholar and medical scientist with a reputation recognised round the world for his work as a researcher and advocate for people with diabetes. A respected mentor of others in the field, he was instrumental in establishing the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation summer research fellowships, one of which was held by Sally van der Hulst who worked with Don on a new non-invasive diagnostic technique for diabetes.

International recognition in Don's medical career began in 1957 when a Fulbright Fellowship took him to Harvard in the US to study diabetes. He has since been recognised as an authority by countries as diverse as Yugoslavia and Indonesia, Switzerland and Singapore, Greece, Fiji and India.

Formal recognition in his own country includes the honours of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1988, and Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) in 2005. Among his most treasured awards is a Memorial Medal from the University of Padua in Italy, the oldest medical school in the Western World, founded in 1222.

The Italian connection is surely appropriate. Among what seems like an overwhelming catalogue of knowledge, Don Beaven includes a passion for growing olives and a scholarly and encyclopaedic knowledge of wines. His olive plantation, at Little Akaloa on Banks Peninsula, was the first in the region. Established in 1992 in partnership with his wife Gillian and the Waghorn family of local farmers, the plantation includes 500 trees and 16 cultivars. Picking Don's olives has become a local festival for friends and neighbours. From his interest in wines he set up with friends the first vineyard in Canterbury. He has taught viticulture at Lincoln University, judged widely in wine competitions, and written extensively. In the Canterbury region the name Don Beaven has become synonymous with appreciation of fine wines.

But olives and wines are merely peaks in a spread of interests that has included mountaineering (with notable first climbs to his credit), support for chamber music and symphony orchestras, for the visual arts, for nature conservation, and a passionate interest in the history and literature of wine and medicine from pre-Christian times. Spending time with Don is always an education, in the finest sense of that term. He is equally at home, and fascinating, whether the subject is the virtues of the Mediterranean diet or the place of genetics in human evolution.

His writing, in more than 250 publications, includes 9 books and many chapters in other publications. He scripted and appeared in television programmes, and served on editorial boards for a variety of New Zealand and international medical journals.

Among all his achievements, however, he gave crowning importance to his work on diabetes, its causes, management, and treatment.

Don's work on diabetes goes back to his earliest days in post-graduate courses in teaching hospitals in Britain. That specialisation helped him to become a Member of the Royal Colleges of Physicians in both Edinburgh and London that year. The London achievement especially delighted him for he was one of only 30 candidates accepted from more than 300 who sat the examinations.

On his return to Christchurch in 1955 as a senior clinical tutor he found that up to a third of patients admitted with acute diabetes, many of them young people, were likely to die. He held regular diabetes clinics, introduced intensive examinations on in-patients, and reduced the mortality rate to below 10 per cent.

Don Beaven also became fascinated by the findings of a seven-country study in Europe which compared the health of people from Finland and Norway through to Greece and Crete. This led him to an appreciation of the health benefits of what became known as the Mediterranean diet and his own findings from a local population study then brought him an opportunity to study at first hand the incidence of diabetes in Crete.

Back in New Zealand he became in 1960 a founding member of the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, an advocate for graduate entry to the Christchurch School of Medicine, and the Foundation Professor of Medicine in Christchurch from 1971 to 1989. This period also included time in important research hospitals in Britain and Australia, and a professional invitation to Geneva in 1970-71.

A selection of his writings in that period indicate the range of his interests – The Future of New Zealand Medicine, 1974; Self-Teaching Guide to Physical Examination, 1976 (joint author); Wine for Dining, 1976; A Colour Atlas of the Nail in Clinical Diagnosis, 1985 (joint author, translated into German, French, Spanish and Portuguese); A Colour Atlas of the Tongue in Clinical Diagnosis, 1988 (joint author, translated into Japanese); as well as books on diabetes and the health benefits of olive oil.

When Don Beaven was the subject of an extended "This Is Your Life" programme in 2003, patients, friends and colleagues had an opportunity to express their regard for this remarkable man: "He recognised the future impact this condition would have on New Zealanders. One of his true interests has been empowering people to manage diabetes. His national and indeed international approach has extended beyond improving treatments for individuals to the public health approach and to improvements in nutrition and physical activity," said Dr Karen Poutasi, Director General of the Ministry of Health.  

"In establishing the Christchurch Diabetes Centre he forged a partnership with professionals and patients represented by the Diabetes Society (now Diabetes Christchurch, a branch of Diabetes New Zealand). He has been the founding father of the specialty of diabetes and has inspired enthusiasm in subsequent generations of diabetes specialist," said Dr Peter Moore, Director, Endocrine/Diabetes Services, Canterbury District Health Board.

Members of Diabetes Christchurch praise his consistent advocacy of concern for the wellbeing of patients with diabetes: through the media, the medical services and with government. He constantly earnt plaudits for his encouragement and support of ventures intended to empower patients by increasing their knowledge of their condition and ability to improve their lifestyles.

This man of many parts was born in Christchurch on August 31, 1924, a third-generation New Zealander. His schooling included Fendalton Open Air Primary School, Christ's College, and university at Canterbury and Otago. He graduated MB ChB (NZ) in 1948. He went on to study at hospitals in Britain (1952-55) with diabetes as his speciality.

He became a fellow of the London and Edinburgh Colleges of Physicians, of the Royal Australian College of Physicians (Vice-President 1980-82), and an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He also received an Honorary DSc from University of Canterbury.

Don Beaven, a life well lived, with a cheerful charm, that touched for the good the lives of thousands of people in New Zealand and round the world.

By Naylor Hillary (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Naylor Hillary is a former leader writer and literary editor of "The Press", Christchurch. Since his retirement in 1998 he has been active in restoration work among areas of native bush on Banks Peninsula, and in promoting the James Logie collection of classical artifacts at the University of Canterbury. Both these activities are among the many enthusiasms of Professor Don Beaven.

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