Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Tom Cunningham
Arthur Cecil Alport (1880-1959), born in Beaufort West, the Karoo, South Africa, was a medical student at Edinburgh between 1900 and 1905. He is remembered for the research he conducted in the 1920s on what has become known as “Alport syndrome,” a genetic condition characterised by kidney disease, and for holding the chair of clinical medicine at the King Faud I Hospital, University of Cairo, Egypt between 1937 and 1945 (Alport, 1927). Alport was an outspoken critic of the practice of medicine in colonial Egypt. His book-length pamphlet, One Hour of Justice: The Black Book of the Egyptian Hospitals and a Fellaheen Charter (1946), was a sustained and bitter attack on Egypt’s health system.
Alport’s son, Lord Cuthbert James McCall Alport (1912-1998), who was born in Turfontein near Johannesburg and was president of the Cambridge Union while at Pembroke College in the 1920s, served as Minister of Commonwealth Relations in the Harold MacMillan government; in this position he visited Kenya during the Mau Mau Emergency and chaired the non-party Joint East and Central Africa Board (1953). In Hope in Africa (1952) Cuthbert James Alport called for the development of African society through multi-racial partnership. Arthur Cecil Alport wrote two auto-biographical books, The Lighter Side of the War: Experiences of a Civilian in Uniform (1934) and The House of Curious: The Odyssey of a Father and Son, etc. (1937).
Africa in Edinburgh during Alport’s years as a medical student
Arthur Cecil Alport was one of a great number of white South Africans to study medicine at Edinburgh before the First World War. One of these was Alport’s own maternal uncle, Dr James Thwaits (1870-1918) who studied at Edinburgh in the 1890s before returning to South Africa to run a medical practice in Von Brandis Square “the Harley Street of Johannesburg.” (Alport, 1937). It is not surprising then, that when Alport arrived in Edinburgh in 1900 he found, already well-established social clubs for the University’s “colonial elements” where people like him “could meet their fellow-colonials.” (Alport, 1937, p58). It was as “a colonial” – certainly not “African” but not fully “British” either – that Alport saw himself while a student at Edinburgh. Indeed, his initial shock at the city’s weather – “intensely cold” and relentlessly wet – added to his sense of being different and even made him contemplate quitting: “only a person who had lived all his life in the sun can understand my feelings during that time. Day after day I became more and more depressed.” (Alport, 1937, p.57).
Alport’s father was a failed gold miner who had sought fortune in South and North America as well as the South African interior before ending up working on his brother’s farm in West Beaufort. (Alport, 1937). His mother was the daughter of a wealthy South African land surveyor. Alport grew up mixing with “English, Dutch, and native children” and attended a mixed preparatory school. His childhood friends “came from the lower- working-class families”; with them Alport “learned to curse and swear like a bargee.” (Alport, 1937, p40). He went to the University of Edinburgh, his son later recalled, “rather because it would take him to England [sic] than because he had any great desire to be a doctor.” (Alport, 1937, foreword).
At Edinburgh Alport fraternised primarily with fellow British South Africans, in particular JPS Jamieson, Dickie Blake (“a good rugger scrum half”), and RS Frew who became his best friend (Alport, 1937, p59). In 1904 as part of their medical course, Alport, Blake, and Frew, undertook a placement in Coombe Hospital, Dublin, to practice gynaecology and obstetrics; at the end of their degree course in 1905 Alport and Frew, apparently at a loose end, “volunteered for service with the Russians in the [Russo-Japanese] War of 1905.” (Alport, 1937, p91). When they were turned down, they volunteered for service with the Japanese only to be refused again. (Alport. 1934).
Alport’s description of his time at Edinburgh presents the University at the turn of the century as a site that was both shaped by colonial relations and in turn contributed to the production of such relations. While Alport enjoyed the company of fellow British South Africans, he was hostile to Edinburgh University’s South African Club, the “home from home” for Dutch South Africans:
“There they spent most of their spare time, [and] spoke to one another only in their own language […] they might just as well have stayed in the little South African dorps in which they originated. They never, as a rule, came near the University Union; they never rubbed shoulders with other nationalities […] their careers at Edinburgh did little to bring about an understanding, or develop any bonds of sympathy between the English and Dutch inhabitants in South Africa” (Alport, 1937, p58-59).
With regard to his fellow black African students, Alport wrote very little. Studying medicine during the first five years of the twentieth century, Alport would have been contemporaries with the likes of H.C. Bankole-Bright, Richard Akiwande Savage, Moses da Rocha, and Bandele Ominyi.
But the only black African student mentioned by Alport in his autobiographies is his classmate “Mr Africanus Taylor.” Somewhat callously, Alport described Taylor thus:
“Imagine a rather squat figure, with thick lips, crinkly hair, a face as black as the ace of spades, and you have Mr. Taylor from the West Coast of Africa. Africanus was rather a pathetic character; his appearance, his colour and his race were against him […] He [ultimately] failed to take a degree, which seems a pity, as it might have been of great value in a country where the answer to the charlatanism of the witch doctor is “modern, scientific medicine.” (Alport, 1934, p71-73).
We catch more than a glimpse, here, of the medical school as an environment heavily structured by race. It was also a place where colonial practices and the production of knowledge went hand in hand, or at least this is what we might deduce from one of Alport’s more bizarre anecdotes from his Edinburgh years:
“Among the students who frequented the anatomy rooms was a Dutchman from the Cape, named Reubenheimer […] After failing in anatomy for the fourth or fifth time, he decided that something had to be done about is, so he went back to his father’s farm in the George district of the Cape and dug up a skeleton of a bushman. This, on his return, he presented to Sir William Turner, who was a famous oesteologist, but whose collection was incomplete as far as bushmen skeletons were concerned […] he [Reubenheimer] passed in anatomy the very next time he tried.” (Alport, 1937, p64).
Why a “bushman” was buried on Reubenheimer’s father farm we can only guess; what Sir William Turner did with the skeleton, and whether the bushman’s remains are still in Edinburgh today, remains to be established. What we can state with certainty though is that while the University of Edinburgh was open to admitting African students in the twentieth century, it was simultaneously very much active in the production of knowledge useful to the colonial enterprise and supportive of such practices as stealing the remains of African people from the land in which they were buried.
Alport after Edinburgh
After graduating (M.B. ChB) in 1905, Alport returned to West Beaufort where he bought a gold mine (which turned out to be non-productive) and ran a medical practice. In 1914 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corp and served in German West Africa, Macedonia and Salonika. During this time Alport “gained extensive experience of malaria” which served as the basis of his Malaria and its Treatment published in 1919. The war seems to have had something of a sobering effect on Alport who had hitherto been driven almost solely by the desire to get rich (Alport, 1937). In 1919 he returned to Edinburgh to receive his M.D. In 1922 he became assistant director of the newly established medical unit at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.
In 1937, on the advice of Alexander Fleming (later Sir) – Alport’s colleague in London, Alport accepted an offer from the Egyptian government to take up the chair of clinical medicine and become director of the medical unit at the King Faud I Hospital, University of Cairo (Alport, 1946). In this position, Alport was credited with shifting the curriculum of medical training at the university from textbook descriptions to bedside teaching and clinical experience (British Medical Journal, 1959). Until his resignation in 1945, Alport campaigned against the “dishonesty and corruption” he claimed was systemic in Egyptian hospitals and which he connected to the negligence and greediness of British colonisers and the Egyptian landed elite. While he framed his complaints as a defence of Egypt’s sick poor and championed the Egyptian population as “a decent, kindly, hospitable, and hard-working people […] who are the representatives of a civilization older than that of the Greeks and the Romans” Alport nevertheless retained a deeply racialized view of Africa, contrasting “the Egyptian” with “the African [who], on the other hand, is a barbarian, with no history, or culture, except the most primitive, to fall back on. It will take three or four centuries to civilize him.” (Alport, 1946, p38).
Alport died in London on 17 April 1959, aged 79. In his obituaries he was described as a man of “downright and forcible character” who was nevertheless “absolutely loyal” to and “much appreciated” by his friends, colleagues, and students. He was remembered in particular for his years at the University of Cairo where he was “a crusader” who “became respected and loved by his Egyptian students not only for the sincere and conscientious way he taught them textbook and bedside medicine but also for the improvements in their conditions, which were often the result of his campaigns in the Senate.” (British Medical Journal, 1959).
Alport, A.C, 1927, Hereditary Familial Congenital Haemorrhagic Nephritis, British Medical Journal, pp504-506.
Alport, A.C, 1934, The Lighter Side of the War. Experiences of a Civilian in Uniform, Hutchinson, London.
Alport, A.C, 1937, The House of Curious: The Odyssey of a Father and Son, Etc., Hutchinson, London.
Alport, A.C, 1946, One Hour of Justice: The Black Book of the Egyptian Hospitals and a Fellaheen Charter, Dorothy Crisp and Company.
British Medical Journal, 1959, A. C. Alport, M.D., F.R.C.P,” The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 5130, pp.1191-1192.
Tomes, J., 2008, Alport, Cuthbert James McCall , Baron Alport (1912–1998), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University, [online ed. available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/71022?docPos=1] accessed 28/07/16]