S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Macartney, Dr Henry E (advancement of science)

Born: Date not known, Place not known.
Died: 10 July 1846, Georgetown, Guyana.

Henry E. Macartney, medical practitioner, qualified in the United Kingdom as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS), but lived in the Cape Colony during the period 1830-1845. He requested permission to practice as surgeon and accoucheur (male midwife) in the colony in 1830. By 1831 he had an "extensive country practice" (South African Commercial Advertiser, 1 October 1831, p. 2), probably at Bathurst, Eastern Cape. However, he also spent time in Cape Town, where he presented a variety of public lectures on scientific topics. Though he described his reasons for lecturing as "a sincere desire to promote the intellectual advancement of the Colony, and to excite a taste for science among the rising generation especially" (ibid), financial gain also played a part as entrance fees were charged and one of his series of lectures was postponed until at least 40 persons had subscribed to the course. The lectures were more popular than scientific, aimed at both instructing and entertaining a poorly educated public. It seems that his presentations were well prepared and that he had a good memory, for he seldom referred to his notes. Others who delivered public lectures on science in Cape Town during the early eighteen-thirties included Reverend James Adamson*, Dr George Thom*, and Mr John Fairbairn.

The topics covered by Macartney reflect a wide interest in particularly the biological sciences. One of his early lectures, in July 1830, dealt with the five senses. This was followed during July to September 1831 by a course of 12 weekly lectures on "Physics, physiology and the history of man". The topics covered included dynamics, mechanics, mechanics of the skeleton, fluid pressure and its biological significance, motion in man and animals, respiration, speech, the varieties of mankind, and heat and its influence on life. The venture seems to have been fairly successful and the lecturer received some moderate praise in the press from a competitor, John Fairbairn. Macartney was in Cape Town again in July 1833, advertising a "Course of lectures on some interesting branches of natural history", dealing with topics such as the formation of the earth, geological strata, fossils, the structure of plants, the Linnaean system of classification of plants, the composition of plants, and their uses. The next year he confined himself to a lecture in April on vibration, sound, the musical scale, harmony and melody.

He does not appear to have been active in Cape Town during the next ten years, but was back again in 1845, when he delivered a lecture on optics and another on the Eastern Cape. During the intervening years he seems to have resided in or near Grahamstown, for in November 1840 he wrote a letter to the Governor from Bathurst on "A plain and easy way to settle the frontier question". The letter was published as a pamphlet in Grahamstown and Cape Town and he was thanked for submitting it by the Secretary of State in London. The next year (1842) he applied to the colonial government for an appointment as medical officer at Kowie Poort, near Grahamstown.

Macartney's interests included one of the more dubious branches of medicine, namely phrenology, a practise that had been described in some detail, and with a critical attitude, in the South African Commercial Advertiser in November 1825. In what may have been his first lecture at the Cape, in June 1830, Macartney provided an introduction on this topic. By the time of his last visit to Cape Town, in September-October 1845, he was a practitioner of the art of reading the shape of the skull. He delivered three (subscribed) public lectures on phrenology, explaining its principles and applications, and invited the public to consult him to have their heads examined.

He left South Africa soon afterwards, as he died in Guyana (South America) in July 1846, on his way to Georgetown. A brief announcement of his death appeared in the South African Commercial Advertiser seven months later.

List of sources:

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Macartney, Henry E.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Commercial Advertiser, 16 November 1825, p. 1, (Editorial); 19 June 1830, p. 2 (brief note, lecture on phrenology); 7 July 1830, p. 2, Lectures on physiology; 6 July 1831, p. 1, Advertissement: Lectures on physics, physiology and the natural history of man; 21 September 1831, p. 1, Advertissement: The twelfth and last lecture; 1 October 1831, p. 2, The late scientific lectures; 3 July 1833, p. 1, Advertissement: Course of lectures on some interesting branches of natural history; 13 July 1833, p. 1, Advertissement: Synopsis of the proposed course of lectures...; 23 April 1834, p. 1, Advertissement: Mr H.E. Macartney...; 6 September 1845, p. 1, 13 September 1845, p. 3, and 4 October 1845, p. 1, Advertissement: Public lectures; 22 October 1845, p. 1, Advertissement: (Lecture on the Eastern Cape); 25 October 1845, p. 4, Advertissement: Optics...; 9 January 1847, p. 1, (brief announcement of Macartney's death).

Compiled by: C. Plug