Paediatrics/Community Child Health
Designatory Letters: 
MB Cape Town 1948, MRCP Edin 1955, MD Cape Town 1957, FRCP Lond, FRCP Edin 1963, Hon FNMC 1970, Hon FRCPCH 1997, DSc (hc) Cape Town 1998

[Contributed by Professor Krishna Somers *]

Ralph Hendrickse was born in Capetown on 5 November 1926. He was the son of William and Johanah (nee Dennis) Hendrickse. He was raised in what would have been described as a Coloured ghetto in a community of richly educated teachers who regarded teaching and learning as pathways to upliftment. He matriculated first class from Livingstone High, a Coloured school, at the age of 15 years. He had parental pressure to train as a teacher but he wanted to be a doctor. He easily passed the entrance examination to Medical School at the University of Capetown. At the time his parents did not have the money to pay University fees. Their family doctor, one Dr Drummond, offered to pay the fees for the first two years. It was an Oppenheimer Scholarship that enabled Ralph Hendrickse to continue in his medical course. He graduated MBChB in 1948, he was one of the top two students in his qualifying class. He was later informed that he had actually been the top student but would not have been given such recognition because he was coloured.

He met a trainee midwife, Begum Adurahman, the daughter of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman in his student years. Abdurahman was a third generation Malay South African whose grandparents had been brought over as slaves from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, as craftsmen in the Dutch colonial settlement in the Cape. Abdurahman graduated in Glasgow, he had a thriving private practice in Capetown and he also became a local politician who founded the African Peoples Organisation with aim of resisting racial discrimination. The mother of Begum was a White South African, Margaret Stansfield, whose family boycotted her when she married the Cape Malay Doctor. Ralph Hendrickse was white enough to become White, an easy task if you left your original location, moved elsewhere and merged into privilege and power in White society, a reasonably common shift of individuals and communities before the Nationalist Government ousted the Smuts United Party and rigidly enforced racially discriminatory laws such as the Population Registration Bill, the Immorality Act and the Mixed Marriages Act.

Ralph and Begum Hendrickse moved to Durban to McCord Zulu Hospital, an American Methodist Mission Hospital. It was at McCord that Ralph developed his abiding interest in the speciality of Paediatrics. Begum, a certified midwife, took charge of an Obstetrics Ward. As it was not possible in those early years to obtain recognisable specialist qualifications in South Africa, Ralph and Begum with their three young children travelled to the UK. He took the examination in Paediatrics for Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. There was no question of returning to South Africa to pursue a specialist career as State and provincial hospitals, not even nonEuropean hospitals, would have employed nonWhite doctors as a substantial number of nurses in the Black Hospitals at the time where White. A committed Africanist, Ralph Hendrickse, like many nonWhite South African Medical Graduates with Specialist qualifications, moved to pick up appointments in newly established University Hospitals in Colonial West and East African countries. Working in University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria, Hendrickse gained extensive experience of sickle cell disease which formed the basis of a dissertation and which led to the award of MD on a return visit to Capetown in 1957. He was subsequently appointed Senior Lecturer and ultimately Professor and Head of the Department of Paediatrics in Ibadan. He became Director of the Institute of Child Health in the University of Ibadan in a subsequent year. He continued research on malaria in pregnancy and protein-calorie malnutrition, kwashiorkor, pioneering study on the role of aflatoxin and its damaging effects on stored grain.

In 1969 Ralph Hendrickse was invited to the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool to take up Chairmanship of a newly established Department of Tropical Paediatrics where he developed a course towards a diploma in tropical paediatric medicine. In his continuing career in Liverpool he was appointed Dean of the School of Tropical Medicine, an appointment he held jointly with Professorship of Tropical Paediatrics up to the time of his retirement in 1991. Throughout his life career he was a recipient of several Honours. He was appointed Senior Heinz Fellow of the British Paediatric Society in 1961. He was a Visiting Professor with Rockefeller Foundation which provided opportunity of visiting and lecturing in a number of Paediatric Centres including Makerere University in Uganda. He was awarded the Frederick Murgatroyd Memorial Prize of the Royal College of Physicians in 1970. His greatest achievement following the political transformation in South Africa, came from his own Alma Mater with award of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Outside his professional life Ralph Hendrickse was a keen photographer; in 1964 he made a film on Sickle Cell Disease which won a prize from the Royal Society of Medicine. He used to play the piano by ear entertaining friends and family. His wife, Begum, predeceased him. He died at his home in Cheshire on 6 May 2010 surrounded by his 5 children, William, Margaret, Terry-Anne, Nerina and Sandra.

A contemporary senior academic at the University of Capetown Medical School described him as a ‘giant of African medicine’.

*This obituary first appeared in the South African Medical Journal to whom we are deeply indebted.