Lives of the fellows

Ralph George Hendrickse

b.5 November 1926 d.6 May 2010
MB ChB Cape Town(1948) MRCP Edin(1955) MD(1957) FRCP Edin(1963) Hon FNMC(1970) FRCP(1973) Hon FRCPCH(1997) Hon DSc Cape Town(1998)

Ralph Hendrickse was professor of tropical medicine and international child health at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He was born in Cape Town, South Africa, the son of William George Hendrickse, a school teacher, and Johanna Theresa Hendrickse née Dennis, the daughter of a building contractor, and was raised in what would have been described as a ‘coloured’ segregated ghetto in the district of Wynberg. His family regarded education as the only pathway to progression. His academic performance was outstanding and he matriculated from a coloured school, Livingstone High, at the aged of 15 with a first class pass. His parents would have expected him to pursue a career in teaching, but his mind was set on medicine and he sat for and passed the entrance examination to the medical school at the University of Cape Town. His parents could hardly have afforded the annual fee of £60, but the family doctor, one Dr Drummond, came to the rescue and covered the cost for the first two years. Hendrickse subsequently received funding from the Oppenheimer Foundation and graduated MB in 1948 as one of the top two students in his graduating class. He was later informed that he had actually been the top student, but, because of his race and colour, could not have been given such recognition.

In 1948, he married Begum Abdurahman, the daughter of Abdullah Abdurahman, a Muslim Cape Malay, whose grandparents had been slaves brought over from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as craftsmen and labourers in the Dutch colonial settlement on the Cape. Abdurahman was a doctor, a graduate of Glasgow, and had a thriving private practice in Cape Town; he helped to set up the first secondary schools for coloured people on the Cape. Abdurahman was also a local politician who founded the African Political Organization (later the African People’s Ogranization), with aim of fighting racial discrimination. The mother of Begum was a white South African, Margaret Stansfield, whose family rejected her when she married Abdurahman. As time progressed, the United Party government, headed by Jan Smuts, began to introduce legislation enforcing racial discrimination. The National Party government which ousted Smuts’ United Party government introduced the term ‘apartheid’ with enactments outlawing social mixing in a succession of laws such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), the Immorality Act (1950) and the Population Registration Act (1950). The constitution of the Union of South Africa 1910 had confined the electorate exclusively to white persons. The democratic transformation of South Africa only began after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990.

Ralph and Begum Hendrickse travelled to Durban. It was at McCord Zulu Hospital, run by an American Methodist mission, that Ralph was to develop a clinical career that took him to the specialty of paediatrics. Begum, a qualified midwife, took charge of an obstetrics ward. As it was not possible in those years to obtain specialist qualifications in South Africa, Ralph and Begum, with their three young children, travelled to the UK, where he gained his membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. There was no question of returning to South Africa as there were no opportunities for non-white doctors, not even in the black provincial hospitals. As an Africanist, Ralph Hendrickse focused on a career in Nigeria, where he was appointed as a senior registrar in paediatrics at University College Hospital in Ibadan, which at the time was affiliated to the University of London. He was successively appointed as a senior lecturer and ultimately as professor and head of the department of paediatrics in Ibadan, which by this time had achieved its own charter. He was named director of the Institute of Child Health at the University of Ibadan. Hendrickse gained his MD from the University of Cape Town in 1957 for his research on sickle cell disease in West Africa.

In 1969, Ralph Hendrickse accepted an invitation from the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool to head up a newly established department of tropical paediatrics. In his latter years he was appointed dean of the School of Tropical Medicine, an appointment he held jointly with the headship of the department of tropical paediatrics up to the time of his retirement in 1991.

Aside from his published work on sickle cell disease, he was extensively involved in research on malaria in pregnancy and protein-calorie malnutrition, kwashiorkor. Extending his work on protein starvation, he pioneered research on the role of aflatoxin and its damaging effects on stored foods such as maize, sorghum, millet and groundnuts. He was the founder and editor in chief of the Annals of Tropical Paediatrics and wrote two books on tropical paediatrics, several book chapters and over 100 articles in medical journals.

Over his career he gained several honours. In 1962, he was appointed as a Heinz fellow of the British Paediatric Society. As a Rockefeller fellow he visited and lectured in a number of paediatric centres in the developing world, including Makerere University in Uganda. He was awarded the Frederick Murgatroyd memorial prize of the Royal College of Physicians in 1970. Perhaps his greatest honour came from his own alma mater, the University of Cape Town, which awarded him an honorary doctor of science in 1998. A contemporary colleague at the University of Cape Town described him as ‘a giant South African’.

Outside his professional life, Ralph Hendrickse was a keen photographer. In 1964 he made a film on sickle cell disease, which won a prize from the Royal Society of Medicine. He was a natural musician and was able to play the piano by ear with great enthusiasm. Predeceased by his wife, Begum, he died at his home in Cheshire, surrounded by his five children – William, Margaret, Terry-Anne, Nerina and Sandra.

Krishna Somers

[The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh – accessed 12 October 2010; The Liverpool Daily Post 26 May 2010 – accessed 12 October 2010; The Lancet 9 October 2010 vol.376, issue 9748, page 1218 – accessed 12 October 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

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