Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Further observations on the centenary of Vegemite

Morris Odell
Melbourne, Australia


“Vegemite Breakfast.” Photo by Janeen on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The articles by doctors James Franklin and George Dunea on Vegemite and Marmite1,2 certainly struck a chord with me. Their observation that Vegemite is a symbol of Australia’s national identity barely does justice to its place in Australian culture and ethos. Although it does originate from an attempt to make a similar product to Marmite, what emerged was a unique Australian product that hit the market here at the right time and was promoted in a patriotic way.

Stimulated by shortages of Marmite during World War One, Vegemite was invented in 1923 by C.P. Callister, a chemist working for food manufacturer Fred Walker.3,4 Walker had the rights to distribute Kraft foods, and he co-marketed Vegemite with their cheese. Eventually Vegemite came to be owned by Kraft until it returned to Australian ownership in 2017. The name is said to have been chosen to demonstrate the product’s vegetarian origin and attract people who did not want to use beef extracts, such as Bonox or Bovril, which were similar in appearance. Vegemite also has a higher salt content compared to Marmite; the latter is unusually sweet and somewhat unappealing to the Australian palate.

Vegemite came into its own during World War Two when Marmite again became unobtainable in Australia.4 It was supplied to our troops and marketed domestically. Since then, generations of Australian children have been brought up eating Vegemite. It is used in innovative ways in soups, dips, savouries, bread rolls, roasts, and even a Vegemite cheese cake!5 Hotels frequented by Australians feature it in their breakfast buffets, but no one other than Australians appears to be able to tolerate it. A favourite local pastime is to offer it to visitors from overseas to see their reaction. President Obama is said to have described it thus: “It’s horrible. …It’s like a quasi-vegetable by-product paste that you smear on your toast for breakfast.”4 Most Australians would see that as an endorsement!

A TV commercial for Vegemite in the 1950s6,7 introduced the Vegemite song, which put the phrase “Happy little Vegemite” into the Australian vocabulary, where it has come to mean a person of any age happily pursuing a pleasurable activity.

From time to time we have endured several attempts to “improve” or “diversify” the product by marketing it into such monstrosities as cheese spreads or sauces and even chocolate,4 all of which were controversial and predictable and dismal failures. Even now, we are regaled with gluten-free and salt-free versions, as well as a squeezy variety and a blended cheesy horror, but true Aussies know there’s no substitute for the real thing. It has been estimated that the iconic yellow topped jar is present in 90% of Australian households.

My own upbringing included being initiated into the delights of Vegemite at an early age, despite my parents being from Europe. Fortunately they were adventurous enough to embrace this unusual substance among other surprises in their strange new homeland. During my medical training, Vegemite smears on examination gloves were a prop for indescribable and extremely politically incorrect skits and practical jokes.

Here in Melbourne, the Vegemite factory is located not far from the Institute of Forensic Medicine where I spent most of my professional life. The factory is on the side of a large freeway that is the main artery between two sides of the city, and the aroma of Vegemite frequently pervades the roadway. I often drove past it on my way to some forensic unpleasantness and relished the comforting smell as a sign that some things can remain stable in a turbulent world.



  1. Franklin, James L. “Marmite: Its place in medical history, Lucy Wills, and the discovery of folic acid.” Hektoen International 14, no. 4 (Spring 2022). https://hekint.org/2022/05/26/marmite-its-place-in-medical-history-lucy-wills-and-the-discovery-of-folic-acid/.
  2. Franklin, James L. and George Dunea. “Marmite versus Vegemite.” Hektoen International (Summer 2022). https://hekint.org/2022/07/16/marmite-versus-vegemite/.
  3. Australian National Museum. “Defining symbols of Australia: Vegemite.” https://nma.gov.au/exhibitions/defining-symbols-australia/vegemite.
  4. Ticket to Know. “The Story of Vegemite: Australia’s Favourite Spread.” YouTube video, 4:37. March 13, 2018. https://youtu.be/6nJm6GFgLzY.
  5. Australia’s Best Recipes. “15 Vegemite recipes every Australian needs to try.” https://bestrecipes.com.au/easy-dinners/galleries/vegemite-recipes-every-australian-needs-try/depfm69z.
  6. Australian Television Archive. “FULL LENGTH: HAPPY LITTLE VEGEMITE’S SONG (ORIGINAL TV COMMERCIAL).” YouTube video, 1:11. November 10, 2019. https://youtu.be/YNiOZInvLog.
  7. Australian Television Archive. “HAPPY LITTLE VEGEMITES – TV Commercial, (1980’s).” YouTube video, 0:36. November 11, 2019. https://youtu.be/laI7Yc73FmM.



MORRIS ODELL is a retired forensic physician and associate professor of forensic medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He spent most of his professional career dealing with blood, guts, sex, and drugs on a daily basis, both clinically and in the courtroom. He enjoys Vegemite on toast and in other ways as an essential pleasure of life.


Winter 2023  |  Sections  |  Food

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