S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Turner, Dr Sir George (public health, veterinary science)

Born: 10 February 1848, Portsea Town, near Southampton, England.
Died: 12 March 1915, Colyton, Devonshire, England.
Dr Sir George Turner

George Turner, pioneer of public health in South Africa, was the eldest son of George Turner and his wife Mary Silcock. He received his medical training at Guy's Medical School, London, qualifying as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS) and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London (LRCP) in 1872. After a year at St Eloi Hospital in Montpellier, France, where he studied smallpox, he was appointed medical officer of health and public analyst at Portsmouth in 1873. He also held positions at the Portsmouth Fever Hospital. Two years later the University of Cambridge awarded him the Diploma in Public Health (DPH). In 1880 he became medical officer of health of the Hertfordshire and Essex combined sanitary districts, but after wo years took up the post of lecturer on hygiene at Guy's Medical School, a post he held to 1895, and also became deputy medical officer of health for London. He investigated and reported on diphtheria in 1884 and on an epidemic of enteric fever in 1894-1895. The University of Cambridge awarded him the degree Bachelor of Medicine (MB) in 1886. He was a member of the Epidemiological Society of London and the Society of Public Analysts, and published papers on "Infantile diarrhoea" (1879) and "Diphtheria common to man and animals" (1887) in the Transactions of the Epdemiological Society. In 1873 he married Anne Silcock, with whom he had two children. In 1888 he was married for the second time, to Eleanor C. Silcock, with whom he had two more children.

In July 1895 Turner was appointed as the first medical officer of health of the Cape Colony, after Dr A. Edington* had filled the post in an acting capacity for two years. He was licensed to practise medicine at the Cape on 24 December that year. He soon organised public health administration in the colony and annually compiled a comprehensive Report on public health in which he gave an account of his wide ranging duties. Within a year after he took up his position the first rinderpest epidemic approached the colony and in December 1896 the German bacteriologist Dr R. Koch* and his assistant arrived to lead the fight against the disease. Turner accompanied Koch's party to Kimberley, where a field laboratory had been established for their use. Koch left for India on 23 March 1897, leaving the further development and application of his fallible bile serum inoculation method in the hands of Dr P.M.J. Kohlstock* and Turner. They improved the method and after Kohlstock's departure Turner and Dr W. Kolle* developed an improved serum from defibrinated blood, rather than bile, following the pioneering work of Arnold Theiler*, H. Watkins-Pitchford*, J. Bordet*, and J. Danysz* They reported their progress to the government in Rinderpest investigations... Report... on the progress of research work, at the rinderpest experimental station, Kimberley; with special reference to a method of immunisation by means of inoculation with virulent rinderpest blood simultaneously with fortified serum of salted animals, dated 11 September 1897. This report was published in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope (1897, Vol. 11, pp. 365-380). They also reported on their work in a paper published in the Zeitschrift f?r Hygiene in 1898. On 14 October 1897 Turner and D. Hutcheon*, W. Kolle and A. Edington held a conference with the Secretary for Agriculture, P.H. Faure, on progress in combating the disease. The minutes of this conference were published as "Inoculation against rinderpest" in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope (1897, Vol. 11, pp. 490-521). Turner also addressed the Cape of Good Hope Branch of the British Medical Association on "Rinderpest: its pathology and the means used to combat its invasion of South Africa". His paper was published in the South African Medical Journal for November 1897. After Kolle's departure Turner stayed on in Kimberley as director of the experimental station until 1898, when he returned to his post as medical officer of health in Cape Town. From 1898 to 1900 he was a member of the Medical Council of the Cape Colony.

In August 1900, shortly after the British occupation of the Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Turner was seconded to the military authorities in the Transvaal as sanitary advisor. He soon arranged the compulsary notification of infectious diseases and later that year was sent to the eastern Transvaal and Mozambique to investigate health conditions, in particular the prevalence of malaria, and the feasibility of stationing troops there. In February 1901, when civil government had been restored, he was appointed medical officer of health of the Transvaal Colony. Rinderpest had again broken out in 1900 and in May 1901 he and government bacteriologist Dr A. Theiler* were sent to the Orange River Colony (now the Free State) and Basutoland (now Lesotho) where they diagnosed the disease and conducted a successful inoculation campaign. Theiler described him around this time as a highly qualified veterinarian and bacteriologist. Turner was directed to establish a rinderpest station at the government bacteriological laboratory at Daspoort, Pretoria, but serum production there was hampered by a lack of facilities and ended early in 1902. On 30 December 1901 he completed his Preliminary report on rinderpest in the Transvaal (Pretoria, 1902, 12p).

In 1901, at his own request, Turner was given an additional appointment as superintendent of the Pretoria Leper Asylum. The study of leprosy became his main interest. He spent much of his time at the asylum conducting bacteriological studies of the disease and published a "Special report on leprosy" in the South African Medical Record (1903/4, Vol. 1). From April 1903 he visited England for six months.

Turner became a member of the South African Philosophical Society shortly after his arrival at the Cape and remained a member until he left the colony. He was also a member of the (second) South African Medical Association and of the Cape of Good Hope Branch of the British Medical Association, serving as president of the latter for 1897/8. After settling in Pretoria he served as a member of the Technical Education Commission, appointed in February 1903 (Orr, 1938). He served as census commissioner for the Transvaal in 1903 and that same year became a member of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa. By 1903 he was a member also of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in 1902). During the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science in 1905 he delivered a paper in Johannesburg on "Rinderpest", in which he reviewed the epidemic of 1896/7 and the development and effectiveness of both bile and blood serum inoculations. The paper was included in the Addressess and papers... (Vol. 3, pp. 410-436) published after the meeting. He furthermore joined the British Association at this time, and became a member of the Transvaal Medical Council. Meanwhile he presided over the public health section of the Seventh South African Medical Congress, held in Pietermaritzburg from 12 to 17 June 1905. In February 1906 he was appointed as a member of the departmental committee investigating government laboratories. However, he served on the committee only until 1 June, when he left on vacation. His period of leave was probably spent in Mozambique, for the next year his "Notes on some birds observed during a shooting trip in Portuguese East Africa" were published in the Journal of the South African Ornithologists' Union (Vol. 3(1), pp. 51-56). He was a member of the Legislative Council of the Transvaal Colony from 1903 to 1907. During 1905-1907 he was one of the meteorological observers (of rainfall, air pressure, air temperature and humidity) of the Meteorological Department of the Transvaal Colony.

Turner retired officially early in 1908, but already returned to England towards the end of October 1907. Settling in Aberdeen, Scotland, he continued his study of leprosy and started learning modern Greek in preparation for an investigation of leprosy on Cyprus. However, it became clear that he was himself suffering from the disease, which he had probably contracted in Pretoria. He therefore retired to the village Colyton, in Devonshire, and though he continued his work there, he soon lost the use of his left arm. Around this time he published a paper on "Scurvy", in which he reviewed its history, symptoms and etiology, in the Transvaal Medical Journal (1911/2, Vol. 7, pp. 41-51). In 1913 he was honoured as a Knight Bachelor (KB). He was a stocky, bullet-headed man with a forthright manner who expressed his views unequivocally, which sometimes created conflict with others. However, his transparent honesty endeared him to most. His son, Dr G.A. Turner*, became medical officer for the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association.

List of sources:
Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope, 1897, Vol. 11, report by Turner and Kolle.

Addresses and papers read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science held in South Africa, 1905 (Vol. 3, paper by Turner). Johannesburg: SAAAS.

British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting.... South Africa, 1905.

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. Civil service list, 1896-1899, 1901.

Cape of Good Hope. Report on public health, 1896, 1898, 1899.

Curson, H.H. South African medical pioneers in veterinary science. South African Medical Journal, 1933, Vol. 7(22), pp. 745-751.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 4, 1981.

Journal of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa, 1904/5, Vol. 5, Members.

Laidler, P.W. & Gelfand, M. South Africa: Its medical history, 1652-1898. Cape Town: Struik, 1971.

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

Medical, dental and pharmacy register for the Transvaal, 1907.

Orr, J. Presidential address. Associated Scientific and Technical Societies of South Africa, Annual Proceedings, 1938, pp. 15-86.

Pama, C. British families in South Africa, their surnames and origins. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1992.

Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, Vol. NMC 34. List of medical practitioners, dentists, chemists and druggists... [registered in the Transvaal on 31 December 1914].

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

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

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

South African medical directory for 1897. Cape Town: Cape Times, 1897.

South African Medical Journal, May 1897, Vol. 5, pp. 20-21 and January 1898, Vol. 5, pp. 240-242: South African Medical Association (lists of members).

South African Orinithologists' Union. Journal, 1907, Vol. 3(1), paper by Turner.

South African Philosophical Society. Transactions, 1897-1907, Vol. 9, 10, 16, 17: Lists of members.

South African who's who, 1908.

Transvaal [Colony], Colonial Secretary's Department. Annual report for the year ended 30 June 1904, pp. B1-B12: Report of the Medical Officer of Health.

Transvaal [Colony], Meteorological Department. Report, 1905, 1907.

Transvaal [Colony]. Report of the Departmental Committee to enquire into the question of government laboratories. (National Archives, Pretoria, Vol. TKP 196).

Transvaal civil service list, 1906.

Transvaal Medical Journal, 1911/2, Vol. 7, paper by Turner.

Who was who, Vol. 1, 5th ed. London: Adam & Black, 1967.

Compiled by: C. Plug