While she may be better-known as South Africa’s first accredited female doctor *, Dr Jane Elizabeth Waterston’s story of perseverance, dedication and compassion deserves wider recognition
Here is some of what Millicent Fawcett in her memoir “What I Remember” had to say about Dr Jane:-
“She was an ardent defender of the rights of the native races of Africa, but full of common sense and practical wisdom upon this and other subjects. It was a joy to walk down Adderley Street, Cape Town, and watch the glow of ardent affection and reverence which lighted up the dark faces of almost every native we met as they recognized her. She was an indefatigable medical visitor at Robin [sic Robben] Island, the Leper Settlement near Cape Town. Her male colleagues wrote and spoke enthusiastically of her professional work, but rather annoyed me by referring to her as the best man among them! It is so difficult for most men to understand that it is a very left-handed compliment to a woman to say when she shows intelligence or force of character that she might be a man. ...
Throughout our camp work all the most difficult and fatiguing jobs were voluntarily undertaken by our dear Dr. Jane. Such things as the source of water supply to be investigated, involving a tramp of a mile or more over the veldt; slaughter places, drainage and sanitation to be inspected – these were the jobs which Dr. Jane claimed as hers by divine right. She was a great politician and an out-and-out Britisher by instinct, and training; but in the presence of a sick child or woman she was nothing but the skilled and tender physician sparing no pains or cost to restore the invalid to health.”
Born in Inverness in 1843, Jane was originally inspired by fellow Scot, David Livingstone, to become a missionary and in 1866 she accompanied the Reverend James Stewart, who had been involved with Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition **, to South Africa where she became the head of the Girls’ Institution of the Lovedale School, training young black women. She realised, however, her heart wasn’t in school teaching and in 1874 returned to England and enrolled as one of the first students at the London School of Medicine for Women.
Five years later she was back in Africa, in Nyasaland [Malawi], where she joined the Livingstonia Mission. This proved to be a disaster. Her fellow male missionaries were dismissive of her abilities and qualifications and she, in turn, was appalled at the way they treated Africans. She lasted barely six months and returned to Lovedale where she opened a medical clinic.
In 1883 she moved to Cape Town and was working there when the three English ladies (Millicent Fawcett, Lucy Deane, Alice Knox) arrived at Cape Town to investigate conditions in the concentration camps.
Held in high regard by Sir Alfred Milner, Governor of the Cape Colony, Jane was appointed to the Ladies Committee but, given her past history, she must have been a force to be reckoned with given her main focus was in treating women and especially the black poor. Although she’d been involved in helping with relief services for Afrikaners during the war, her opinion of their treatment of black people did not endear her to them.
She was not openly active in the suffrage movement but a believer in the benefits of the British Empire and thus Jane may seem a contradictory figure when viewed through the eyes of modern or revisionist history, but there is no denying the impact she made.
Her Oxford Dictionary of Biography entry tells us:-
"Although she was the only woman doctor in a country not noted for its enlightened attitude to women, she was accepted by the local medical profession. This was partly because of her tact and strength of character, and partly because she chose to practise among women, the poor of Cape Town, and the Xhosa dock labourers, whose language she spoke.
... In her later years honours were showered upon her. In 1925 she was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, the second woman to achieve this honour, and in 1929 she was made an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Cape Town.
This recognition was due partly to Waterston’s political activity. Although she never openly supported women’s suffrage, she lived opposite the Cape houses of parliament and regularly attended sessions there. She lobbied vigorously for the protection of black education and increasingly, from the 1880s, the promotion of the British empire.
* Dr James Barry is often considered the first female doctor in South Africa. However, Barry was officially a male doctor during his service there and it was not until after his death that it was revealed that he may have been a woman forced to disguise her sex.
** For more information on this disastrous Zambezi Expedition, see the series of posts on my companion blog, Digging the Dust.
Samples of more information on Jane Waterston:-
Journal of Medical Biography
Historical Publications South Africa
Gender, professionalism and power: The rise of the single female medical missionary in Britain and South Africa, 1875-1925 (this thesis is downloadable in PDF, H. Ingram.)
Links to other posts in this series about the members of the Ladies Committee sent to investigate the Concentration Camps in South Africa:-
Introduction to the Ladies
Millicent Garrett Fawcett
Lucy Deane Streatfeild
Katherine Blanche Brereton
Lady Alice Knox
Personal library sources include:
"The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War, A Social History" by Elizabeth Van Heyningen
"Rebel English Woman, The Remarkable Life of Emily Hobhouse" by Elsabe Brits
"The Compassionate Englishwoman" by Robert Eales
"The Boer War" by Thomas Pakenham
"Those Bloody Women, Three Heroines of the Boer War" by Brian Roberts