EARLY MEDICAL CARE IN CAPE TOWN – DR DAWN GOULD

As soon as was possible, after the arrival of the first Dutch settlers at the Cape, medical care for sailors and military personnel was arranged at the fort.  Next came an infirmary just outside of the building and by 1699 another was built opposite to the early Dutch Reformed Church – between present day Adderley and Church Streets.

The years passed and eventually a hospital was built at the end of the seventeenth century in the vicinity of Caledon Square, Cape Town. Later an improved building followed in Adderley Street near the Company Gardens.  A well known hospital built during the early nineteenth century and which remained in use into the twentieth century was the old Somerset Hospital, Green Point.  It offered medical aid from the city to the suburbs.

But having built hospitals with doctors and nurses to run the institutions some form of transport was needed to aid the sick by moving them to or from where ever was needed.  If it was possible a patient may have been fortunate enough to be seen by either a person with some medical knowledge or by a medical doctor. If this care was not available the sick person might have been taken to the nearest facility strapped either on the back of a horse or donkey or inside an ox wagon. What was needed was a better form of moving patients along the lines of an ambulance. By the way some sources state that as far back as the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) a wagon ambulance was used. Others give the middle 1850s, around the time of the Crimean War, as using this means of transporting the ill or injured.  Later in 1864 the Convention of Geneva thought it necessary to state that in times of war the staff of ambulances should be considered neutral.  In South Africa horse or donkey drawn ambulances played an important role during the early part of the South African War, 1899-1901.

What brought this to mind was a minute I came across regarding the difficulties Cape Town faced not in having no ambulances but in finding a place for them to be parked.  In 1913 the Health and Building Regulations Committee had to consider a report from the Medical Officer of Health re the accommodation at the Chapel Street Fire Station. The Chief Officer of the Fire Brigade wanted the ambulance removed as there was no space for it at the station, the stables or the workshop in Rugter Street.

The Medical Officer of Health suggested that a shed be built for the ambulance at the City Hospital.  While he had the specific department’s attention, he quickly slipped in a further request that the shed be built large enough to house a second ambulance.

The result?  Plans and specifications were drawn up and in time this matter of importance became a reality.