John Stanbury '35

Please pass the salt
October 1, 2009
John Stanbury

Courtesy John Stanbury

In 1950, John Stanbury was a young physician at Massachusetts General Hospital when he had a "chance encounter" with a visiting surgeon from Argentina. The surgeon had brought with him photographs of patients suffering from enlarged thyroid glands, or goiters, and, like his colleagues, Stanbury had never seen cases like the ones the Argentine displayed. Intrigued, Stanbury and other researchers traveled to Argentina in June of 1951 to investigate further, and through their research showed the first physiological link between goiters and iodine deficiency.

Stanbury has been researching iodine deficiency ever since. He's now committed his story to paper in The Iodine Trail: Exploring Iodine Deficiency and Its Consequences Around the World. In the book, more memoir than medical text, the ninety-four-year-old doctor describes his field work in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and beyond.

As Stanbury explains in the book, humans need iodine to grow and develop normally, but it is naturally in short supply throughout much of the globe. The primary method for combating iodine deficiency is by adding potassium iodide or iodate to table salt. But for this to happen, governments and health officials need to be educated about iodine's importance, and programs need to be established to monitor and enforce the process.


As Stanbury and his colleagues discovered over the course of a half-century of research, such measures are essential because iodine deficiency can cause not only goiters but also serious cognitive impairment.

It became "quite apparent," he says now, "that iodine deficiency in the diet would cause difficulties in cognition, and so each time when we'd visit a spot, we'd see what the local situation was, how severe the deficiency might be, what if anything they were trying to do about it, and if we could do anything" to help.

In 1985, Stanbury, who majored in chemistry at Duke and spent five years in the Navy during World War II, founded the International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD). The organization appointed regional directors to various sectors of the world to collect data and implement programs, educating governments and communities about the importance of distributing iodized salt. The ICCIDD continues to monitor the problem in developing countries and has become a model for other organizations combating international health problems.

Though Stanbury uses The Iodine Trail to educate readers about iodine and its importance, he also takes time to recall his memorable personal encounters with characters famous, infamous, and obscure.
In Argentina, he meets president and dictator Juan Perón, who gives him a paperback collection of Perón's own political speeches. In Kinshasa, he chats with an American doctor, who has to end their conversation early to play chess with "the Old Man"—Zaire president Mobuto Sese Seko.

Today iodine deficiency has been almost eliminated and, according to the ICCIDD website, it is estimated that 70 percent of households worldwide consume iodized salt. But, as Stanbury writes in his book, "It remains a threat, and like a serpent is always ready to rise and strike when surveillance or governmental attention" lapses.