S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Greathead, Dr John Baldwin Smithson (medicine, advancement of science, mammal collection)

Born: 12 February 1854, Aliwal North, Free State, South Africa.
Died: 26 October 1910, East Africa.

John Baldwin Smithson Greathead was the son of J.H. Greathead, a member of the Legislative Council of the Cape Colony, and the next elder brother of the surveyor Walter H. Greathead*. He resided in England from 1859 to 1863 and started his schooling there. On his return he continued his studies at St Andrew's College, Grahamstown, and then spent a brief period in training at the Standard Bank. In 1873 he proceeded to the University of Edinburgh, where he obtained the degrees Bachelor of Medicine (MB) and Master of Surgery (CM) in 1879. He was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England the same year after further training at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He enjoyed a reputation for brilliant general surgery and received glowing testimonials from his teachers and chiefs. Returning to the Cape Colony he was licensed to practice in September 1879 and settled in Grahamstown to do so for the next 29 years. In 1880 he married Esther Louisa Merriman, daughter of Bishop Nathaniel Merriman and sister of the statesman John X. Merriman.

Greathead soon became highly respected as a surgeon and general practitioner and in some respects was a successor to Dr W.G. Atherstone* in the affairs of Albany. For example, he took over Atherstone's position as chief surgeon at Albany Hospital in 1880. He was also appointed district surgeon and public vaccinator of Albany, railway medical officer for Grahamstown, a member of the important Leprosy Commission of the Cape Colony in 1894-1895, and after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was a government nominee on the Colonial Medical Committee. In 1887 he was a delegate to the International Medical Congress in Washington, United States.

In January 1884 Greathead contributed a paper, "Radical cure of femoral hernia" to the first issue of the South African Medical Journal (1884-1888). Four years later he wrote on "Hysterectomy and menstruation" in the British Medical Journal. In addition to his renown as a surgeon he became well known as an ophthalmologist and travelled all over the Eastern Cape as a consultant in this field.

Greathead was a member of the British Medical Association. In February 1885 a branch of the first South African Medical Association was formed in Grahamstown, of which he was the honorary secretary. However, in March 1886 the members decided to secede and form the independent Eastern Medical Association of South Africa. In 1893 this association was replaced by the Grahamstown and Eastern Province Branch of the British Medical Association, of which Greathead was president for some time and before which he delivered many papers. Furthermore, in 1897 he was a member of the provisional committee set up to establish the (second) South African Medical Association.

He had a strong interest also in natural history, sport and photography and collected ethnological specimens. One of his hobbies was big game hunting and collecting trophies, and in its pursuit he travelled widely in southern Africa, visiting Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, the northern Kalahari, and East Africa. He compiled a fine photographic record and kept diaries of these trips, and contributed specimens to various museums, including the National Museum of the United States. In 1899 he presented a forest shrew to the Albany Museum, as well as a sample of gold-bearing quartz from Dobie Mine, near present Mberengwa, Zimbabwe. He donated some further mammals in 1906. When the Literary, Scientific and Medical Society of Grahamstown was revived in July 1892, mainly to manage and act as custodian of the Albany Museum, Greathead was elected as joint vice-president of the museum committee. He served in this capacity for many years and succeeded Dr H. Becker* as president of the committee in February 1905. He was a foundation member of the revived Albany Natural History Society in 1890 and of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1902, and joined the South African Ornithologists' Union in 1905.

Greathead's other activities included serving as chairman of the council of St Andrew's College from 1887 to 1908. In the latter year he abandoned his practice and went farming at Norval's Pont, near his birthplace Aliwal North. However, he died from sleeping sickness only two years later while on a trip to East Africa. The director of the Albany Museum, J. Hewitt*, described him as one of the museum's most generous donors, who presented the institution with many of its larger mammals.


List of sources:
Albany Natural History Society. Minute Book, 1890-1892, p. 1. (In Albany Museum, Grahamstown).

Benson, R.P. Organized medicine in the Eastern Cape. South African Medical Journal, 1981, Vol. 60(16), pp. 631-638.

Blumberg, L. Selections from the case-books and diaries of Dr J.B.S. Greathead, MB MC (Edin.), MRCS (Eng.) Adler Museum Bulletin, 1996-1999, Vol. 22(3), pp. 3-17; Vol. 23(1), pp. 14-23; Vol. 25(1), pp. 4-9; Vol. 25(3), pp. 4-11.

Burrows, E.H. A history of medicine in South Africa up to the end of the nineteenth century. Cape Town: Balkema, 1958.

Cape of Good Hope. Report on public health, 1897, 1899.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the committee of the Albany Museum, 1904-1908, 1910.

Cape of Good Hope Government Gazette, 9 January 1885, pp. 41-45: List of licensed medical practitioners in the Cape Colony...

Gess, S.K. The history of the Greathead family. Annals of the Grahamstown Historical Society, 1982, Vol. 3, pp. 49-56.

Grahamstown Journal, 2 February 1884, p. 3: "The South African Medical Journal"; 2 July 1892, p. 2 and 26 June 1897, p. 3: "Literary, Scientific and Medical Society"; 20 June 1896, p. 4 and 23 June 1899, p. 2: "Albany Museum".

Literary, Scientific and Medical Society. Minute Book, 1898-1903, p. 1. (In Albany Museum, Grahamstown).

Malherbe, D.F. du T. Family register of the South African nation (3d ed.) Stellenbosch: Tegniek, 1966.

Medical and pharmacy register for the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, 1893, 1907.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to John Baldwin Smithson Greathead / J.B.S. Greathead.

Obituary: J.B.S. Greathead, MB CM MRCS. South African Medical Record, 1910, Vol. 8, p. 283.

Prominent men of Cape Colony, South Africa. Portland, Maine: Lakeside Press, 1902.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1903, 1905/6, lists of members.

South African Medical Directory for 1897. Cape Town: Cape Times, 1897.

South African Medical Journal, series 2, March 1896, Vol. 3(11), p. 314: "Eastern Province Branch, British Medical Association, Annual Meeting, January 30th, 1896"; May 1897, Vol. 5, p. 17-18: "South African Medical Association".

South African Ornithologists' Union. Journal, 1909, Vol. 5(3), list of members.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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