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Victorian heroine of tropical medicine

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I have always enjoyed reading about Victorian women who dared to move beyond the confines of their day, so the 150th anniversary of the birth of African explorer Mary Kingsley, which is on 13 October, attracted my attention immediately.

Born into a family of writers, which included her uncle Charles Kingsley, author of ‘The water babies’, Mary loved books from an early age. Dedicating her early life to looking after her sick mother gave Mary plenty of opportunity to devour books in her father’s library, particularly those about “exotic lands” and “daring male travellers”, from whom she took inspiration.

Following her mother’s death in 1892, she took the then extraordinary step of setting sail on a cargo ship for West Africa, supposedly with an intention to collect specimens of fish and information on religious fetishes. But in addition to her specimen jars she carried the prevalent cultural baggage of her time, of Africa as a “dark continent” and a “land of savages”. Yet these images and a desire to penetrate the African mindset made her travel as a trader, living as her African companions did and depending on them for her safety and well-being. In this land

where she was first of all “white” and only secondly a woman, Mary is said to have found a new kind of freedom, yet in one of her books. ‘Travels in West Africa’, published in 1897, she denies having worn trousers, as some in England had alleged. “I would rather have perished on a scaffold,” she wrote.

‘Travels in West Africa’ describes Mary’s interactions with African doctors, most of whom were witch doctors and “a little empirical in their methods of treatment”. Lady doctors abound, she adds. “They are a bit dangerous in pharmacy, but they do not often venture on surgery, so on the whole they are safer, for African surgery is heroic.”

She goes on to cite a case of surgical extraction of a bullet from a man’s chest without an anaesthetic, in which the patient died. Another surgical description was of man with a broken ulna for which a native doctor drove a piece of bamboo through the muscles from the wrist to the elbow and then encased the limb in plantain leaves. Six months later the arm was useless and withering away, she records.

Baths, then as now, were much valued for cases of stiff joints. They were made by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with boiling water, adding herbs, often cardamoms and chillies, and then immersing the patient and covering the bath with clay, leaving just the patient’s head sticking out.

Chillies found further use as a remedy for malaria headache, Mary reports. They were pounded, mixed with clay and applied to the forehead. In her opinion they were among the best native herbal remedies she saw.

Mary’s identification with Africans, and her growing view that African countries should be trading partners rather than colonies, gained her few friends in England. As a woman she could not attend the many learned forums in Victorian England to present her views, though she was able to give talks at institutions such as the Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

With a growing sense of isolation, Mary went on to serve as a nurse in South Africa, where she was soon absorbed in the needs of patients suffering as a result of the Boer war. But, like many of her patients, she died of typhoid fever within two months.

In 1903, three years after her death, her friend John Holt, a Liverpool ship owner and one of the founders of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, instituted a medal in her name. It has been presented ever since for outstanding achievement in tropical medicine.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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