S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Dibbetz, Dr Reinier de Klerk (medicine)

Born: 1764, Djakarta, Java, Indonesia.
Died: 1808, Guinea coast.

Reinier (also Rijnier) de Klerk Dibbetz, son of Dirk Jan Dibbetz and his wife Bankje Maria Lycklama a Nijeholt, was born in the Dutch East Indies where his father was Council of Justice. He received his schooling in Franeker, Friesland, the Netherlands. In 1780 he registered as a medical student at the Hogeschool of Franeker, qualified as Doctor of Medicine in 1784, and set up his practice in Heerenveen. He showed rebellious and revolutionary tendencies from an early age and as a result was forced to leave Friesland in 1788, settling at St. Omer, France. After the French occupation of the Netherlands in 1795 he returned to Friesland and continued his political activities. Moving to 'S-Gravenhage (The Hague), he published his own weekly newspaper, Heraclyt en Demokryt, in which he reported on Frisian matters between December 1796 and January 1798. Again he was forced to flee, fist to Brussels and then to Paris, but in June 1798 political persecution was abolished and he was able to settle in 'S-Gravenhage to practice medicine. As co-author with C.G. Ontijd he participated in writing a book on Proeven en waarnemingen over de inenting der Koepokken (Experiments and observations on inoculation of cowpox), which was published in 1800, only two years after Edward Jenner's finding that inoculation with cowpox vaccine provided immunity against smallpox.

Following the Peace of Amiens between England and France in March 1802 the Cape Colony was formally transferred to the government of the Batavian Republic in February 1803. Dibbetz was sent ahead with Commissioner-General J.A.U. de Mist to serve, from June 1902, as Director-in-Chief of the Military Hospital and inspector of all government medical and public health services in the colony.

In November 1803 an opportunity arose to introduce vaccination against smallpox at the Cape, with the arrival of a Portuguese slave ship, the Belasario, in Table Bay. On board were a cargo of slaves who had all been inoculated with cowpox vaccine in Mozambique. Dibbetz, with doctors Friedrich L. Liesching* and Christian A. Bosenberg, was sent to confirm the captain's claims that there were no cases of smallpox on board and that the vaccine he had used was the true cow-pox virus. This proved to be the case, and the doctors recommended that the whole population of the colony be vaccinated. To prove that the procedure was safe, and that the cowpox was not contagious, Dibbetz inoculated a number of local young slaves and placed them in isolation on Paarden Island with others that had not been inoculated. None of the subjects contracted smallpox or other ill effects, convincing the authorities and most of the population that the technique was not harmful. As a result a Vaccine Commission of twelve doctors, chaired by Dibbetz, was appointed on 12 December 1803 to control the voluntary vaccination of the population, and to ensure that there would always be vaccinated persons available with lesions from which further vaccinal matter could be obtained. Six months later almost 5000 persons had been vaccinated.

In addition to his medical duties Dibbetz was superintendent of the government printing works. During the reoccupation of the Cape by the English in 1806 he acted as General Janssens's secretary, and as courier and negotiator between Janssens and the British forces. Soon after the capitulation he sold his house and other belongings and returned to the Netherlands. Two years later he died on his way from there to Java. He was married to Helena Charlotta van Rossum.

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

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987.

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

Lyst van alle collegien, civile en kerkelyke ambtenaaren, in de Bataaffsche volksplanting aan den zuidpunt van Africa (African Court Calendar), 1805. Reprint by South African Library, Cape Town, 1982.

Melzer, R. Dibbetz, Reinier de Klerk. Adler Museum Bulletin, 1977, Vol. 3(1), pp. 10-12.

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

Compiled by: C. Plug