S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Wehr, Dr Johann Heinrich Friedrich Carl Leopold (obstetrics)

Born: 21 October 1764, Allendorf an der Werra, Hessen, Germany.
Died: 16 October 1854, Cape Town, South Africa.

Johann H.F.C. Leopold Wehr, son of Christian R. Wehr and his wife Maria E. Vilmar, qualified as Doctor of Medicine at the University of Marburg in 1798. He was commissioned as surgeon-major of the 6th Battalion of the Waldeck Regiment on 27 October 1800 and came to the Cape with his regiment in 1802 or 1803, around the time when the British handed the colony over to the Batavian Republic. In December 1803 he was appointed on a medical commission for vaccination, chaired by Dr R. de K. Dibbetz*, which was authorised to conduct a vaccination campaign against smallpox. Weir left the military in 1805 to become a civil surgeon in Cape Town. On 16 June that year he married Susanna Jacoba de Villiers (who died in 1843), with whom he had four surviving sons. In August 1807 he was one of the first four medical men to be licensed to practice as physicians at the Cape. He was furthermore the only one licensed to practice also as an accoucheur (male midwife).

In July 1808 Wehr wrote to the governor, the Earl of Caledon, about the lack of tranined midwives at the Cape and asked to be appointed as colonial accoucheur and allowed to start a training programme. The matter was referred to the Supreme Medical Committee, which supported the proposal and stated that Weir was appropriately qualified for the task - he was a skilled obstetrician and an able administrator. As a result he was appointed on 1 November 1810 as "colonial instructor in midwifery", a position he held until it was abolished early in 1828. A pamphlet, Instructions for Dr Wehr, colonial instructor for midwifery, dated 1 November 1810, was issued by the colonial secretary's office. First he examined all the midwives of Cape Town to identify those who could be allowed to practice provisionally, and to select his first students. He conducted the three month course of instruction at his house at 11 Castle Street, giving lectures three times a week, while practical training took place in rented quarters where slave women were brought to give birth. Ethical issues and rules of conduct were included in the training. Wehr issued certificates of competency to those who passed an examination at the end of the course. The first group of seven students completed their training and were licensed to practice in August 1813. As far as is known this midwifery school was the first professional training institution in South Africa.

Wehr was a respected medical practitioner. In 1813 he moved to 29 Strand Street, where he practiced until 1824. That year he took two of his sons (Reinhard W.C.T., 1809-1867, and Johann B.T., 1811-1873) to Germany, where both qualified as medical practitioners before returning to the Cape. Wehr himself returned in November 1825 and was appointed that same month as a member of the re-established Supreme Medical Committee. A year or two later he was elected its president. He resumed his practice as surgeon and accoucheur, now at 40 Strand Street. At some time during the eighteen-twenties he was appointed honorary director-in-chief of Somerset Hospital. He also served as physician and surgeon to the European Sick and Burial Society, and was its chairman in 1823. On 19 August 1826 Drs J.K. van Oosterzee*, Wehr and Heurtley jointly reported in the South African Commercial Advertiser on the case of an eleven year old girl who had been bitten by a dog and died from rabies three months later. This was only the second known case of the disease at the Cape (Curson, 1935).

Wehr left for England in June 1828, but later returned to Cape Town, where he died at the age of ninety. As late as 1849 he was still concerned with the certification of midwives. He should not be confused with either of his two medical sons, or with another son, Johann Heinrich Friedrich Wehr (1810-1849), who was married to Johanna Susanna Jacoba de Villiers.

List of sources:
African Court Calendar, 1810-1823, 1827, 1828: Directory of Cape Town.

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

Curson, H.H. Matters of veterinary interest, 1795-1881. Chapter V. Journal of the South African Veterinary Medical Association, 1935, Vol. 6, pp. 274-295.

De Villiers, C.C. Geslagsregisters van die ou Kaapse families. Hersien en aangevul deur C. Pama. Kaapstad: Balkema, 1981.

Hoge, J. Personalia of the Germans at the Cape, 1652-1806. Archives Yearbook for South African History, 1946, pp. 1-495.

Kaapsche Stads Courant en Africaansche Berigter, 15 August 1807, p. 1: Gouvernements Advertentie. (National Archives, Pretoria, Vol. KK 598).

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

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). . Documents relating to Wehr, Johan(n) Heinrich Friedrich / Wehr, Johan Heinrich Fredrik Carel Leopold / Wehr, J.H.F.C.L. / Wehr, Dr J.

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

Compiled by: C. Plug