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Dr William Soga (Posthumous)

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Dr William Soga (Posthumous) Awarded for:
Being a trailblazer in the field of medicine and anthropology for the black generations of South Africa. His determination saw him painstakingly hand-write a complete PhD thesis.
Profile of Dr William Soga

Dr William Soga was the first black medical doctor in South Africa. He wrote a fascinating Doctor of Medicine (MD) thesis in 1884 entitled, The ethnology of the Bomvanas of Bomvanaland, an aboriginal tribe of the South East of Africa, with observations upon the climate and diseases of the country; and the methods of treatment in use among the people. This was almost as much an anthropological as a medical study, and its personal interest is heightened by the fact that it is handwritten in an elegant copper plate style.

Dr Soga’s thesis indicates that he was very aware of the environmental, climatic and social issues implicated in the cause of disease. The thesis emphasised the adverse effects of sudden temperature change, the impact of polluted water on dysentery, and the beneficial effect of dry inland climate on consumptives. Dr Soga showed a scientific attitude towards tuberculosis, which he clearly found a puzzling phenomenon, and attempted to resolve the problem by making cross-cultural comparisons between the lifestyle and prognosis of Europeans and Africans.

The better recovery rates of the former were attributed to superior clothing, food, housing and nursing. He related the causes of consumption among black Africans to the habit of sleeping under blankets and therefore to the exclusion of fresh air; to sleeping on mats on damp floors, with the heat of the warm body serving to draw damp up through the porous rush mat; to the crowded state of the huts; and finally to the recent adoption of European-style clothes, which often became damp.

Among his black patients Dr Soga also encountered several cases of leprosy, and concluded that while it is not necessarily a hereditary disease it is certainly contagious. He observed that, “The people say it is a new disease and to prove the fact say that they have no name for it ... it is known by the name of Isifo Samalawu or Hottentot’s Disease.”

He also noted that while there were heart problems following rheumatic fever, and patients might have dropsy, fatal heart conditions were unusual among blacks. He attributed this to the fact that their life is simple and tranquil without fret, worry or push. Dr Soga concluded that strumous (i.e. glandular), skin, dyspeptic and parasitic diseases were common, while bronchitis and asthma were very common, and epidemics of smallpox, measles, and influenza leading to pneumonia, were also hazards.

Among the most fascinating parts of the thesis are passages in which he compared Western and indigenous medicine. He described several other features of indigenous healing, such as the treatment of a bewitched patient by sucking out “deleterious material,” treatment by a specialist herbalist who looks only at specified conditions, and a limited practice of surgery.

Dr Soga’s work remains an inspiration and proof that with determination what seems impossible can be made possible in medicine and science.