Review: History of Science in South Africa

Every now and then you come across a book which consolidates a range of material, books, and thoughts you’ve encountered along the way. William Beinart and Saul Dubow’s The Scientific Imagination in South Africa: 1700 to the Present is just such a book.

This is a book on the history of scientific development in South Africa. It is not a complete history as the authors well acknowledge, but a start, and hopefully an inspiration to others to pick up the baton and continue.

The book follows the political trajectory of South Africa through to 2020 culminating with a comment on the impact of Covid in relation to other pandemics South Africa has experienced.

By all accounts, South African scientists weren’t very active on the World War 1 front – many undertaking their studies at that time but there are links to topics which feature, such as Rinderpest which is covered by Dan Gilfoyle, an editor of the Great War in Africa’s There Came a Time, colonial specialist at The National Archives in London, and involved with SCOLMA, which concerns African studies material in UK libraries and archives. Rinderpest was a huge problem for farmers across Africa as noted by Dan’s articles, Philip (PJ) Pretorius in Jungleman (2013) and more recently in The Rinderpest Campaigns: A Virus, Its Vaccines, and Global Development in the Twentieth Century (2018) by Amanda Kay McVety which I am still to read. Pretorius and Alex Mouton in his biography on FS Malan (Prophet without Honour, 2011) refers to farmers having to eradicate infected herds – a huge financial loss.

Keeping with the animal theme, is Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends You Choose (2020). While Marthe’s book is not directly mentioned by William and Saul, her time in South Africa coincided with the launch and development of the animal studies unit at the University of Pretoria in the 1960s. While Saul and William cover this as a scientific development, Marthe shares a personal insight to the department as an outsider encountering South Africa’s internal political struggles.

Both Marthe, a trained scientist, and Philip Pretorius, a hunter and explorer, take animal studies into the rest of Africa, and beyond in the case of Marthe. Their books align with William and Saul’s in bringing natural and indigenous knowledge into awareness alongside the science. Pretorius’ experiences are a repeated theme in White Hunters.

Hunters of animal and plant, for the pot and the museum, by gun and camera were prevalent during the 1914-1918 war in Africa as numerous accounts set out – Dr Carpenter in the Congo, Richard Meinertzhagen, Arthur Loveridge, Cherry Kearton to name but a few. A few others used their war-time experiences to develop their interest in the lay of the land, geography and geology – all amateur interest. Professionally, Alex du Toit was completing his studies at the time, but after went on to formulate and prove the theory of continental drift as Suryakanthie Chetty explains, also referred to by William and Saul.

Medical developments feature with a mention of the first heart transplant, the ethics of which are touched on in Marthe’s book. This is the one area I was most surprised to see no mention of World War 1 as many of South Africa’s leading doctors, as per the SA Medical Journal, were involved in the war. But then concerning the war in East Africa, little has been published on this topic generally. Discussion of William Soga and Thabo Mbkei’s approach to science and indigenous knowledge raises the question of what labour and carriers in the field did where they, like the Boer women, did not trust British or scientific medicine. Can we draw links from presenters at the 2016 Scolma conference on Medical Matters? Does anything feature in diaries and memoirs hidden, so far undetected, in archives across Africa and Europe?

William Beinart and Saul Dubow have succeeded in presenting a timeline of scientific development in South Africa providing a context for much else, whilst leaving room for questions to be asked and hopefully answered by others in due course.

Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.