Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
05. Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
Menilek, Medicine and International relations
We saw last week how foreign medicines gained increasing popularity during the reign of Emperor Yohannes. Now read on!
The coming of modern medicine to Ethiopia advanced significantly further during the reign of Menilek, a period of relative peace, when foreign contacts expanded. This period also witnessed the founding of Addis Ababa, and all the modernisation which followed therefrom.
Despite Menileks reputed interest in innovation, significant developments in the medical field took place only in the 1880s. They owed much to Menilek’s early ties with the Italians. Several Italian doctors visited Shawa between 1886 and 1889. They included Vincenzo Ragazzi and Leopoldo Traversi, who established themselves at Lat Marefeya in northern Shawa, Cesare Nerazzini, who for a time was stationed in Harar, and Raffaele Alfieri, who travelled to several different parts of the country. These foreign physicians dispensed a variety of medicines, which, according to their compatriot Antonio Cecchi, included emetics and quinine for the treatment of malaria. Italian military cooperation was, however, of but short duration, for it came to an end soon after the Treaty of Wuchale, and Menilek’s dispute with the Italians, which culminated in the historic battle of Adwa, in 1896.
The Russian Red Cross Mission
The impending conflict between Menilek and the Italians, and Russian support for Ethiopia, which the Russians regarded as fellow Orthodox Christian country invaded by a Roman Catholic aggressor, led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission. Though conceived as a medical support for the Ethiopian troops it arrived too late for the actual fighting, which came to end with the Ethiopian victory, at Adwa, on 1 March 1896. The Russians did not reach Harar until May, of that year, and appeared in Addis Ababa only in July, i.e. some four months after Menilek’s Adwa victory. The Russian mission had a strong military component. It was led by a Russian army general, four general staff officers, six cavalry officers, eleven artillery officers, seven non-commissioned officers, four medical doctors, thirteen non-commissioned officers of the medical corps, and a chaplain. By the beginning of October 1896, when the Russians published their first set of medical statistics they had given a total of 26,419 medical consultations, 15,955 of them in Harar, and 8,919 in Addis Ababa. A total of 13,056 persons had been treated, 7,819 in Harar, and 5,237 in Addis Ababa. Ninety persons had been hospitalised: seventy-five in Addis Ababa, and fifteen in Harar.
Addis Ababa’s Russian Hospital
The original Russian mission was later replaced, in 1897, by a second group of doctors, who duly set up Ethiopia’s first hospital, in Addis Ababa. Situated between the Russian Legation (now the Russian Embassy) and the centre of the town, it had twenty beds, besides an out-patient department, and had a staff of five doctors, beside several nurses and pharmacists. Run on a Russian budget of 70,000 Maria Theresa dollars a year, it provided its patients with entirely free treatment (Those, you may think, were the days!). A British report stated that by August 1897 the hospital had treated 31,000 patients, and was later said to be seeing between a hundred and a hundred and fifty a day. The Russians, according to the British big-game hunter Powell-Cotton, no sympathetic observer, wore gorgeous but dingy uniforms, and lived in wretched looking tuculs and tents. He claims that they did not have a very high reputation among the Europeans in the capital, but had done much useful surgical work for the natives, especially those wounded in the late war with Italy.
Besides giving moral support to the Italians, and later to the Russians, Menilek had his own medical facilities, situated at the palace. These were described over the years by at least three foreign observers. The first was the French traveller Jules Borelli. Describing the situation in 1894, he states that Menilek had several portable pharmacies, as well as a set of surgical instruments presented to him by the Italian, Dr Traversi. The second description was in a Russian report of 1897. It confirms that the palace contained a fairly extensive court pharmacy, where each medicine was carefully labelled with its Latin name, translated into Amharic characters. The third account of the palace pharmacy was written almost two decades later by an Italian physician Dr Lincoln De Castro. He noted in 1915 that the Emperor had been supplied by the foreign missions with every kind of medicine. They were jealously guarded by the official in charge, and each bottle or container had, he confirms, an Amharic label stating the contents, as well as a note on its use, e.g. cough medicine, medicine for tapeworm, medicine for dysentery, for syphilis, scabies, etc.
Menilek, by all accounts, was keenly interested in modern medicine. The British envoy Rennell Rodd, who visited Addis Ababa in 1897, recalls that on being received by the Emperor, he told the latter that he had brought with him some X-ray equipment, but had feared to present it on account of possible opposition from the clergy. You should have brought it, the monarch replied.
Anti-Russian European Feelings
Russia’s involvement in the medical arena was disliked by the British, and possibly by the other European colonial powers. This is evident from the accounts of several British contemporary writers. The traveller Herbert Vivian remarked that the hospital was, for the Russians,an ingenious short cut to popularity with the people. Powell-Cotton declared that the hospital was a means, for Russia, of ingratiating herself with the natives and showing how dear is their welfare to the white Czar. A.B. Wylde likewise cynically observed that the Russians, who had so kindly and disinterestedly come to the aid of the Abyssinians, with pills and bandages, had through the hospital made their first footsteps in Africa. They had thus opened, perhaps, under the cloak of charity and humanity what may become a foundation to build a right to interfere in the politics of Abyssinia and north-east Africa and also on our [i.e.the British] line of commerce to the east. This the British did not like, one little bit.
British, Italians, and French Copy the Russians
Notwithstanding such criticism, or perhaps because of the fear which lay behind it, the other European powers soon decided to follow the Russian example, by themselves entering the medical field. The Italians, French and British all added medicine to their diplomatic activity, which became intense in 1897, the year after the battle of Adwa. Italian medical activity, which was second in importance after that of the Russians, started even before the end of hostilities. During the siege of Maqale, at the end of 1896 and beginning of 1897, an Italian physician, Dr Eliseo Mozzetti, treated Ras Mangasha Atikim, who had been injured by a fall from his horse. Not long afterwards the Italians despatched a medical mission, under Dr Angelo de Martini, to treat Italian prisoners in Ethiopian hands. The mission also cared for many Ethiopians. 3,432 persons were treated between January and May 1897. A few years later, in 1901, the Italians established a clinic in their Legation compound. It was run by Dr Dominico Brielli, who was succeeded by Dr De Castro. The latter records that the clinic, between September 1901 and April 1911 gave 59,695 consultations, as well as 6,000 vaccinations. The French meanwhile had also entered the medical field. They attached a physician, Dr Rousseau, to their Legation staff, and, in 1898, despatched a medical mission, led by Dr R. Wurtz, of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, to study the remarkable Ethiopian rinderpest epidemic, of 1889-90. Wurtz, assisted by a laboratory assistant called Fenski, vaccinated 20,700 people, and left behind sufficient serum for a further 250,000 vaccinations. The British also threw themselves into the Ethiopian medical arena. At the turn of the century they appointed Dr W.A.M. Wakeman, as their Legations medical officer. He was a Eurasian, who, according to Jennings, a British observer, spoke Amharic like a native. He later reported that he was annually dispensing 5,000 capsules of Male Fern extract for the treatment of tapeworm. The result of this diplomatic activity was that the people of Addis Ababa at least began to be familiarised to foreign medicine – for which, as De Castro says, they did not have to pay a single centime, kopek or penny.
Medicine at the turn of the century was practiced not only by foreign diplomatic missions, but also by a number of resident or visiting foreigners. Prominent among the former was an elderly Greek, Balambaras Gheorgis, who acted as both a physician and a physician and a pharmacist. His practice was recorded by De Castro, who, somewhat maliciously records that this was of undoubted benefit to the Greek, but an uncertain one for his clients.