Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
02. Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
The Medical Activities of James Bruce, and his 19th Century Successors
The rulers of Ethiopia, as we saw last week, had long been interested in foreign medicines, and foreign medical practice of all kinds. This was, as we have already suggested, no less apparent in the eighteenth century, at the time of the visit to the country of the famous Scottish traveller James Bruce.
Smallpox Stricken Massawa
Bruce, whose claims of medical prowess must not, I fear, be taken too literally, landed at the Red Sea port of Massawa in September 1769. The port, he claims, was then gripped during a terrible epidemic of smallpox.There were fears, he asserts, that “the living would not be sufficient to bury the dead.” The “whole island,” he asserts, was “filled with shrieks and lamentations both night and day.”
Anxious to leave the hot, and epidemic-stricken port, and to make his way into the cooler, and supposedly more healthy, highlands of the interior, he “suppressed” his “character of physician.” He did so, he says, in fear that he would otherwise be “detained by reason of the multitude of the sick.”
Bruce, according to his own account (for his story is largely uncorroborated by others) accordingly at once proceeded inland. He went first to Adwa, the great, but still relatively new, Tegray market town. There he claims to have “saved many lives’,” by a “new method” of treating them.
The Royal Children at Gondar
From Adwa, our traveller proceeded to the then Ethiopian capital, Gondar, where, he claims, the smallpox epidemic was also fiercely raging. He says that, soon after his arrival in the city, he was summoned by the ruling lady, Empress Mentewab, and her daughter Woizero Aster. They did so, he claims, because several of the royal children were suffering from the disease, and knowledge of his medical skill had preceded him. At the palace, the situation, he says, was serious.
His medical advice, he declares, was that everyone suffering from the epidemic should at once “remove from the palace.” He did so, he says, in order to “give the part of the family that were yet well a chance of escaping the disease. Wise as was this advice, he claims that it was not followed, because one of Woizero Aster’s sons clamoured loudly against leaving his young relatives. It was therefore decided that all the royal children, and their friends, should remain together, and, as the Scotsman puts it, “abide the issue all in the palace together.”
On taking medical control at the palace, Bruce claims that he called the court’s Greek doctor, Abba Christophorus, and others, and told them of his determination to be in full, and undivided, command of the situation. “I professed my attention,” he says, “of doing my utmost, although the disease was much more serious and fatal in this country than in mine, but I insisted that one condition be granted to me, which was, that no directions as to the regimen or management, even of the most trifling kind, as they might think, should be suffered, without my permission and superintendence, otherwise I washed my hands of the consequence, which I told them would be fatal. They all assented to this, and Armaxikos (a palace priest) declared those excommunicated that broke this promise: and I saw that the more scrupulous and particular I was, the more the confidence of the ladies increased.”
Bruce claims that he then “set the servants all to work,” and, describing his method of treating the epidemic, continues:
Opening All Doors and Windows
“I opened all the doors and windows, fumigating them with incense and myrrh, in abundance, washed them with warm water and vinegar, and adhered strictly to the rules which my worthy and skilful friend Doctor Russell had given me at Aleppo.”
Bruce gives us a list of the royal children he claims to have had entrusted to his care. They included three of Woizero Aster’s children: Ato Konfu, her son by her first husband Qenyazmach Necho; a son by her second husband Yemaryam Barya; and a baby by her third husband, the redoubtable Ras Mika’el Sehul. Among those who fell ill, the Scotsman says, was Aster’s sister Woizero Altash’s daughter Yewubdar; a daughter of Qanyazmach Berru, the governor of Damot; and her mother, the daughter of another important courtier Qanyazmach Eshete. All his patients, he says, survived, with the exception of Qanyazmach Berru’s daughter, whose mother was also “a long time ill.” Yewubdar and Yemaryam Barya’s son both recovered, but were “very much marked” by the disease.
Bruce claims that his medical services at the Gondar palace won him considerable influence at court, and was the cause of the “remarkable attention and favour” he claims to have received from the ruling family at Gondar.
The Scotsman’s above quoted account is, however, far from medically satisfactory. It gives us no real information on the extent of the epidemic outside the palace at Gondar, let alone in the country as a whole.
Bruce’s Other Treatment
Bruce has left a brief description of another of his methods of treatment. He was on one occasion, he says, called upon to treat a nobleman, whom he thought to be suffering from what he terms cancer of the lip. He recommended the use of hemlock, and relates:
“I had been advised by my some of my medical friends to carry along with me a preparation of hemlock, or circuta, recommended by Dr Stork, a physician at Vienna. A considerable quantity had been sent to me from France by commission, with directions how to use it. To keep on the safe side I prescribed small doses…, being more anxious to preserve myself from reproach than warmly solicitous about the cure of my patient. I gave him positive advice to avoid eating raw meat, to keep to a milk diet, and to drink plentifully of whey when he used this medicine.”
The Early 19th Swiss Missionary Samuel Gobat
A number of early nineteenth century European foreign travellers also acquired considerable reputations for their medical skills, justified or unjustified. The Swiss Protestant missionary Samuel Gobat treated Woizero Walata Teklit, whom he describes as the “first lady” in Gondar, in 1830. She later asked him to look after her brother, who had apparently “gone mad,” and had failed to respond to the prayers of the local priests. Gobat, following what was then the medical fashion in Europe, decided to bleed him. “I took from him,” the Swiss reports, “three or four pounds of blood; and when he was at the point of fainting, I made him lie down on the bed, recommending the people to let him rest”. Very sensible too, you may think!
The treatment was apparently successful, for, on the following day,Woizero Teklit called on Gobat, and declared: “I have sent to you to testify to my gratitude for the good you have done to my brother. Since you saw him yesterday, he is as reasonable, in what he says to me, as if he had never lost his sense.”
Gobat, who never escaped an opportunity to discredit the country’s Orthodox clergy , replied to the good lady: “I think the quantity of blood was the cause of his malady; but I assure you that I did not bleed him without asking God that he would cause you to see that the word of the priests is not always the truth”.
“The More I Tell them I am not a Physician.”
Gobat’s success was so great that he was soon besieged by crowds of prospective patients. “I can hardly get to the city any more,” he wrote. “Everybody stops me, begging me to go and heal the sick. The more I tell them I am not a physician, the more they are persuaded that what I advise is the best remedy. There are some persons who believe that it is sufficient for me to look on the sick to effect a cure.”
As a result he soon had a continuous flow of visitors. Later in his diary he notes,”Today I had to deal only with sick people,” and, on the following day, he added, “I had hardly risen this morning, when suddenly my house was full of people, priests, monks and others.” Later diary entries tell a similar story. One recalls, “I passed the forenoon in visiting the sick,” while another declares, “From sun-rise, till ten o’clock, my house was full of people.”
The Saint Simonians, Combes and Tamisier
The French Saint Simonian missionaries Edmonde Combes and Maurice Tamisier also testify to the extent of popular Ethiopian interest in European medicine. Describing their travels in the Gondar area, they write:
Impotent Men and Sterile Women
“Everyone was convinced that in our capacity as Whites we must be profoundly versed in the study of medical sciences… each person is anxious to come and see us, to ask us for remedies or amulets with the conviction that we could assure the cure of the ill with which they are afflicted… Impotent men appealed to us to give them aphrodisiacs, and sterile women thought that we could procure for them the means of becoming fertile. A priest came to present to us his son who was afflicted with a disease considered in Europe as incurable.”
Belief in foreign medicine was, Combes and Tamisier suggest, often little more than a superstition. Travelling in the Danqaz countryside, they thus relate:
“The villagers begged us, with the most lively insistence, to make them an amulet to preserve them from the terrible storms which ruined them, and we feared for a moment that we would be held by force if we refused to subscribe to their wish. `We know’, they said to us,” that a White man enters into direct communication with the Heavenly Bodies and spirits, and that he can, by his own power, drive away the hail and illnesses of the country which he protects; remain therefore in our midst the time that is necessary for this beneficiant work: we will treat you like princes, you will lack nothing, and, when you leave. we will pray for you so that God will bestow his favours on you’.”