Written by Richard Pankhurst
Adapted from An Introduction to the Medical History of Ethiopia
While diplomats, doctors, and other foreigners had been introducing modern medicine to ever-wider sections of the public, the first Ethiopian doctor, quite unknown to Menilek or anyone else in the country, had been obtaining his training abroad.
The story of this physician, variously known as Dr. Martin and Hakim Workneh, is most romantic. Born in October 1865 of a good family, he was not yet 3 years of age when his parents, along with other prominent people of Gondar, were seized by Emperor Tewdros andÂ taken with their families to his fortress at Magdala. On the arrival of the Napier expedition notÂ long afterwards, the child was found wandering away from his parents and was assumed by theÂ British to be lost. He was therefore annexed by Colonel Charles Chamberlain, of the 23rd IndianÂ Pioneer Regiment, who took him back with him to India and kept him at his home inÂ Rawalpindi. The colonel died in 1871, after which the boy was dispatched to the mission schoolÂ at Amritsar, the expense of his education being met by one of their number, Colonel Martin. TheÂ missionaries christened the boy Charles after the colonel who had brought him to India andÂ Martin after the one who paid for his education.
Charles Martin, as he was now called, was sent in due course to a boarding school at Batala and thence to the Lahore Medical College, where he graduated as a licentiate in Medicine and Surgery in 1882, standing third in the final examination. He was then appointed, at the age of 22, as an assistant surgeon in the British medical service in India. He resigned his appointment in 1889, and, having saved enough to pay his passage, traveled to Scotland where Dr. Russell, from the Glasgow medical office of health, gave his hospitality during his studies for the Edinburgh and Glasgow degree, and nine monthsâ€™ attendance at the Glasgow Western Infirmary. In 1890 he secured the diploma of L.R.C.P., L.R.C.S. of Edinburgh and the FP. andÂ S. of Glasgow and returned to India, after which he was appointed district medical office and civil surgeon at Tongwa in Burma and later held a number of appointments in that country. In 1886, hearing that the Italians had invaded his native land, he obtained three monthâ€™s leave and rushed off to Aden, hence to Zeila in British Somaliland, only to be stopped by the British district officer, J.L. Harrington, who told him that on account of the war he would not beÂ allowed to proceed, and any case it would take six weeks to reach Addis Ababa. Dr. Martin wasÂ sadly obliged to return to Burma. His effort, however, was not wasted, for Harrington, who wasÂ subsequently appointed British agent in Addis Ababa, duly informed Menilek about the youngÂ Ethiopian doctor. The emperor was most eager to meet his compatriot and asked Harrington toÂ arrange this. The result was that March in 1898 he received a letter from the envoy telling himÂ that if he could obtain leave, arrangements would be made to convey him from Aden to AddisÂ Ababa.
Dr. Martin in due course arrived in the Ethiopian capital. In his diary (which, althoughÂ unpublished, provided the basis for the present account), he recorded that after being presented toÂ the emperor, he secured an interpreter (for he had long forgotten the few words of AmharicÂ which he knew as a child), pitched his tent in the center of the town, and began to treat patientsÂ free of charge.
He was soon surprised to see an old lady, accompanied by attendants, going back andÂ forth from of his tent and regarding him with obvious attention. He sent his interpreter to inquireÂ what she desired. She replied that she wished to examine his arms and legs, as she believed himÂ to be her grandson, who had been lost at Magdala as a child. He cordially invited her to examineÂ him but stipulated that she must first tell him what she expected to find. She replied â€œa long scarÂ on the left arm and another on the right leg.â€Sure enough, the scars were there. His grandmother then told him that his name was
Workneh, that his mother had died of grief a few days after he had been carried away, and thatÂ his father had not long survived her. His uncle, who was the principal customs officer in AddisÂ Ababa, and other relatives soon made themselves known to him, his aunt apologizing for havingÂ deserted in panic more than 30 years earlier.
The emperor meanwhile arranged with the British government for Workneh to obtain aÂ leave of absence for a year, and informed them that he himself would pay the young manâ€™sÂ services. Workneh, who now set about learning Amharic, urged the emperor to open schools.
Menilek agreed, but so much opposition was encountered from the Church that no progress wasÂ made. The young man therefore asked the emperorâ€™s permission to depart, but Menilek refusedÂ to let him go, promising him to put down the opposition. Workneh meanwhile was workingÂ continuously as a physician and surgeon. He was, however, by no means in a satisfactoryÂ financial position. He found it difficult to obtain any remuneration, and although the emperor
finally agreed for him to be given a salary of f200 a year, f45 of it went towards his BurmaÂ pension. Moreover, the French and Russians, who were jealous of him, intrigued; claiming thatÂ he was a British spy. He nevertheless remained in Addis Ababa till February 1901, beforeÂ setting forth for Burma.
On the journey back, he met Ras Makonnen, the governor of Harar, who extended hisÂ leave for another year, without pay. He had finished his service with the emperor, which had leftÂ him almost penniless but agreed to serve with a British expedition then being dispatched againstÂ the â€œMad Mullahâ€ of Somaliland and was appointed medical officer for the campaign. At theÂ end of the expedition, he went to Harar, where he treated Ras Makonnen and worked for sixÂ months, in return for which he was given some 70 acres of land.Â In February 1902, Dr. Martin at length returned to Burma, taking with him five EthiopianÂ boys, to secure their education. (One of them, Tedla Abebiyeu, later became a doctor.) A yearÂ later, the British government requested he join another expedition against the mullah, and at theÂ close of his service he took another four boys to educate.
Shortly afterwards, he obtained study leave to attend Kingâ€™s College and the SkinÂ Hospital, both in London, and in 1908 was appointed temporary medical officer to the BritishÂ legation in Addis Ababa, where he was assisted by one of the young men he had educated inÂ Burma. Workneh stayed in the country five years, until June 1913, during which period heÂ treated the emperor as well as many other patients and did much to popularize modern medicine.
Ethiopian Medical History
Photo: Dr. Melaku Beyan. Dr. Melaku Beyan became the first Ethiopian medical doctor to complete his education in the United states in 1935 (Dr. Workneh Eshete became the first Ethiopian doctor to obtain a modern medical education in 1882)
The non-governmental organization, People to People, has just released The Manual of Ethiopian Medical History by Enawgaw Mehari, Kinfe Gebeyehu and Zergabachew Asfaw. The purpose of the publication is to teach the future generation of Ethiopian medical students and health care professionals about Ethiopiaâ€™s medical history.
Mekele University and Bahir Dar University have reportedly agreed to incorporate the study into their medical education curriculum.
Enawgaw Mehari, MD
Kinfe Gebeyehu, MD
Zergabachew Asfaw, MD
Senior Graphic Editor: Matthew I. Watt