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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.100 n.12 Pretoria Dec. 2010




Ralph George Hendrickse (5 november 1926 -6 may 2010)(MD, DSc (honoris causa), FRCPE, FRCPCH (founder fellow), FMC (Nigeria: foundation fellow))




Ralph Hendrickse was born in Cape Town on 5 November 1926. He was the son of William and Johanah (née Dennis) Hendrickse. He was raised in a coloured community of richly educated teachers who regarded teaching and learning as pathways to upliftment. He matriculated first class from Livingstone High, a coloured school, at the age of 15 years. Ralph was accepted by the University of Cape Town to study medicine but his parents did not have the money for university fees. Their family doctor, Dr Drummond, offered to pay the fees for the first two years. An Oppenheimer Scholarship enabled Ralph to continue his studies, and he graduated MB ChB in 1948. He was one of the top two students in his class and was later informed that he had been the top student but was not given such recognition because he was coloured.

As a student he met a trainee midwife, Begum Abdurahman. She was the daughter of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, a third-generation Malay South African whose grandparents had been brought as slaves from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, to work as craftsmen in the Dutch colonial settlement at the Cape. Abdurahman graduated in Glasgow and had a thriving private practice in Cape Town. He entered politics and founded the African Peoples Organisation with the aim of resisting racial discrimination. Begum's mother was a white South African, Margaret Stansfield, whose family ostracised her when she married the Cape Malay doctor. Ralph was white enough to be classified as white, an easy task if you moved elsewhere and merged into privilege and power in white society. This shift occurred commonly in individuals and communities before the Nationalist Government came to power and rigidly enforced racially discriminatory laws such as the Population Registration Bill, the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act.

Ralph and Begum Hendrickse moved to Durban to McCord Zulu Hospital, a Methodist Mission Hospital, where Ralph developed his abiding interest in paediatrics. Begum, a certified midwife, took charge of the obstetrics ward. As it was not possible at that time to obtain specialist qualifications in South Africa, Ralph and Begum with their three young children travelled to the UK. He took the examination in paediatrics for Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. There was no question of returning to South Africa to pursue a specialist career, as State and provincial hospitals and non-European hospitals would not have employed non-white doctors. At the time many nurses in black hospitals were white. A committed Africanist, Ralph, like many non-white South African medical graduates with specialist qualifications, moved to appointments in newly established university hospitals in colonial West and East African countries. At University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria, Ralph gained extensive experience with regard to sickle cell disease, which formed the basis of the MD degree awarded to him on a return visit to Cape Town in 1957. He was appointed as a Senior Lecturer, later Professor and Head of the Department of Paediatrics in Ibadan and subsequently Director of the Institute of Child Health at the University of Ibadan. He continued his research on malaria in pregnancy, protein-calorie malnutrition and kwashiorkor, and did a pioneering study on the role of aflatoxin and its damaging effects on stored grain.

In 1969 Ralph was invited to the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool to take up Chairmanship of a newly established Department of Tropical Paediatrics, where he developed a course towards a diploma in tropical paediatric medicine. At Liverpool he was appointed Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine, an appointment he held jointly with a Professorship in Tropical Paediatrics until his retirement in 1991. He received several honours, including Senior Heinz Fellow of the British Paediatric Society in 1961; Visiting Professor with the Rockefeller Foundation, providing the opportunity of visiting and lecturing in a number of paediatric centres including Makerere University in Uganda; and the Frederick Murgatroyd Memorial Prize of the Royal College of Physicians in 1970. After the political transformation in South Africa his Alma Mater awarded him the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

Ralph was a keen photographer - his 1964 film on sickle cell disease won a prize from the Royal Society of Medicine. He played the piano by ear, entertaining friends and family. His wife, Begum, predeceased him. He died at his home in Cheshire on 6 May 2010 surrounded by his five children, William, Margaret, Terry-Anne, Nerina and Sandra.

A contemporary senior academic at the University of Cape Town Medical School described him as a 'giant of African medicine'.


Professor Krishna Somers

Western Australia

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