The doctor from Germany

2011-11-24 00:00

THIS Saturday, three books are being launched at a function at St Luke’s Church hall in Howick. All three books are linked by their connection with the Von Mengershausen family — two books being genealogies and the third a biography and other writings of family members.

Perhaps the best known of those is Julius von Mengershausen (1846-1920), the first medical doctor to practise in Howick, a stalwart member of St Luke’s Anglican Church, and who had the house Ilmenau in Bell Street built. There is a display devoted to him and his family in the Howick Museum.

Von Mengershausen’s life and work are the central focus of the three books created by two of his great-grandchildren, Sue Helm Davies and John Job.

“It really all began back in 1904 when my great-grandfather requested the family tree, including the grant of arms copied — in a leather-bound book — be sent out to him in Howick in the then Colony of Natal,” says John Job who lives in Johannesburg. The text — handwritten — was in a mixture of Latin and German.

“I did Latin at school and in 1960, when I was 15, I reckoned I was good enough to have a go at translating it.” Accordingly, Job’s mother organised a photocopy of the book. “In those days photocopying was not the exact science it is today and it was a dark copy. I managed to get a quarter of the way through and then let it rest there.”

Meanwhile, in 1985 Von Mengershausen’s great-granddaughter Sue Helm Davies — unaware of Job’s youthful endeavour — began working with the original book at her home in Pietermaritzburg. “But it was largely indecipherable,” she says. But she persevered and managed to translate and transcribe the entire contents. This material constitutes Book One. She then went on to research the children of Julius and his wife Martha, and these genealogies became Book Two.

She says that it was inevitable that she and Job would eventually meet up and when they did “I inspanned him to write Julius’s biography, and then one of his wife Martha. There were conflicting accounts of their parents’ lives written by two of their daughters and these anomalies needed tidying up.”

In Germany, the roots of the Mengershausen family can be traced back to the 14th century. “There are also some references dating back to the 12th century, but they can’t be linked up,” says Job who visited locations associated with the Mengershausens in Germany in 2005.

Julius von Mengershausen was born on February 16, 1846, in Clenze, where his father was a Lutheran pastor. Following the death of his father a few months after his birth, young Julius was brought up by his maternal grandparents in Bevensen, where he loved to walk and play on the banks of the river Ilmenau that ran through the city. He studied at Luneberg University and became a pharmacist, subsequently serving during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) as a medical orderly. Shortly after the war, he decided to come to South Africa.

The reasons for Von Mengershausen’s choice are somewhat obscure according to Job. “There was a story that he had a weak chest and came out for his health, but around that time a great many Lutheran missionaries set off into the world from Germany. He was adventurous throughout his life, and perhaps as a young man felt he should go out into the world and see what he could make of himself. At the time, Europe was spewing out people into the new world in the United States as well as into the British and other empires.”

Von Mengershausen arrived in Durban in 1872, and was briefly employed at a chemist’s shop in Pieter­maritzburg before being fired because of his poor English. He then went to Port Elizabeth where he became a surgeon dresser at Port Elizabeth Hospital and later surgeon superintendent, a post that probably involved supervising the operating rooms in the hospital. There he met another German pharmacist, Max Wilhelm, subsequently marrying his daughter, Martha, herself a trained dispenser, in 1874. Shortly afterwards, they had twins who sadly died within days of each other, about six months after their birth.

The couple then decided to return to Germany to enable Von Mengershausen to further his medical studies, and he duly completed a doctor’s degree and returned to South Africa to take up a government district doctor’s position in the Cape Colony.

In 1880, he became doctor to the Boer forces fighting in the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881). “According to his daughters, he was hijacked by the Boers and forced to serve under them,” says Job, “but his daughters were fully Anglicised by then and that he had been on the Boer side was not acceptable. In fact, he responded to a call from International Red Cross to assist the Boers because they had no doctors attached to their forces.”

Von Mengershausen was present at the Battle of Majuba, where the Boers defeated the British in a victory that led to the end of the war and the retrocession of the Transvaal.

The war over, Von Mengershausen returned to the Eastern Cape via Durban, where he learnt of a vacancy for a district surgeon’s post at Lions River. He applied and was accepted, holding the post from 1881 to 1902.

He and Martha arrived in Howick in late 1881 along with three children, staying temporarily at the Howick Falls Hotel, then in rented accommodation prior to the building of a double-storey family home, which also included a ward for patients on the second floor. This was completed in 1886, and named Ilmenau after the river that had played such an important role in his childhood. It was occupied by the Von Mengershausens until 1912. Under its roof, eight of their children grew to adulthood. Five were less fortunate.

House calls were a feature of Von Mengershausen’s working life. One one occasion, he was called out to mend a broken bone in Nottingham Road. It had been raining for days and rivers and streams were in flood. Job describes how he had to cross a stream that “had become a raging torrent, in front of the injured person’s house. Julius had to strip off his clothes and swim across with his horse. Having crossed the torrent after being washed some distance downstream, Julius set the broken bone successfully.”

Less happily, in 1892, Von Mengershausen broke his collarbone in a fall from a horse, and while convalescing decided to visit a sister in Madras, India, signing on as a ship’s doctor to facilitate the trip. He would do so again in 1907 and 1910 out of a sense of adventure, and also possibly to have a break from his onerous routine in Howick. In the early 1900s, he also took a three-year posting to Ingwavuma in northern Zululand, as a means of bolstering his pension before retiring from the Natal Colonial Service.

Von Mengershausen sold his private practice and dispensary for £300 in 1912 and having leased Ilmenau went on a European trip with Martha, visiting the United Kingdom and Germany. On their return they lived briefly in Durban before coming back to Howick.

The Von Mengerhausens were a popular Howick family and they all attended St Luke’s. Von Mengershausen, a notable tenor, sang a key role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, produced as a fund­raising venture for the church

He continued to do the occasional locum and in 1920, aged 74, went off on another voyage as a ship’s doctor. On the return leg from India he suffered a fatal cerebral Haemorrhage on October 11, 1920, and, as the plaque in St Luke’s records, “was buried at sea off Colombo”.”His wife Martha died 19 years later, aged 84.

Their house Ilmenau was later home to many doctors and, more recently, the setting for the Afton Restaurant. Today it is once again occupied by a doctor.

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