The British Empire Library

On Call in Africa in War and Peace 1910 to 1932

by Dr Norman Parsons Jewell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Burton FRCS (Surgeon, Northern District Hospital, Santo, Vanuatu, 1986-1993)
Few can be as fortunate as Dr Norman Jewell (1885-1973) in having grandchildren prepared to put hard work into preserving a grandfather's life for posterity. Jewell's hitherto unpublished memoirs, written fifty years ago or more, form the greater part of this book. Investigations by his family and friends provide numerous, often quirky, explanatory notes. Jewell served in Seychelles 1910 -14, saw active service in the East African campaign, and continued in the Colonial Medical Service in Kenya until 1932.

Under British control since the 1790s, Seychelles, like Mauritius, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and some Caribbean territories, combined a French and British heritage. With government medical officers from the 1820s and a substantial hospital in Mahe from 1875, Seychelles obviously predated British colonial activity in most of Africa. Jewell's Seychelles chapter has interesting anecdotes about ordinary life, but little on the nittygritty of practising medicine or being a magistrate on Praslin and other islands. Thin pickings here for that medical history of the Seychelles which waits to be written.

Jewell's return to Seychelles in 1917 on sick leave coincided with the repatriation of the remnants of the Seychelles Labour Corps from East Africa. During the war 42% of the Corps died of malaria, dysentery and what was described as 'beriberi'. Jewell was able to free a local medical officer to look after returnees. Other writers such as William McAteer have described Jewell's contribution in more detail.

This review commends but passes over the parts of the book dealing with Jewell's service in the East African campaign, including transcripts of military diaries held in the the National Archives. They give a rare glimpse into the immense Indian medical contribution to East Africa, recently highlighted by historians Anna Greenwood and Harshad Topiwala. In this book, look out for Sub-Assistant Surgeon Zorawar Singh!

Kisumu, Nakuru and Mombasa, where Jewell worked as a District and Provincial Medical Officer from 1918 to 1925, will be familiar to many. His final appointment was Surgical Specialist at the European Hospital in Nairobi. Jewell relates many interesting anecdotes about game-hunting, local characters and day to day living but there is surprisingly little on his medical work. Jewell's medical publications, hardly more than listed in the book, give more light. The editors could have interpreted some of them for the general reader. Jewell lived in a heroic age when a doctor could be both surgeon and authority on infectious diseases. His publication on surgical work in Nairobi shows an impressively low mortality, but more intriguing is that a third of his patients were 'natives', Seychelles or Somalis. How did they come to be in the European Hospital operating theatre? His book on tropical fevers, written with Dr WH Kauntze, demonstrated what could be done from 'other than accepted centres of civilisation'. Writing in 1932, Jewell was up to date with the emerging understanding of the difference between viruses and bacteria.

On Call in Africa succeeds well as a family memoir. Including many excellent photographs, it is fascinating for the general reader but says disappointingly little about what a colonial doctor actually did when 'on call' became 'called in'.

British Empire Book
Dr Norman Parsons Jewell


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