S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Ebden, Dr Henry Anderson (medical sciences)

Born: 1824, London, England.
Died: 14 June 1886, Cape Town, South Africa.

Henry Anderson Ebden, son of a respected English merchant family at the Cape, received part of his high school education at the South African College during 1838 and 1839. In 1845 he qualified as Doctor of Medicine (MD) and as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS) at St Andrews, Scotland. Returning to the Cape Colony he was licensed to practise there as a physician, surgeon and accoucheur on 3 September 1846. The next month he placed a small advertissement in the South African Commercial Advertiser, offering daily free medical advice to the poor at a Cape Town pharmacy. In November that year he published a circular in the same newspaper, informing the medical fraternity of his intention to commence publication of the Cape Town Medical Gazette, the first medical journal in southern Africa. The first issue appeared in January 1847, with Ebden as its editor. Its aims were to provide a medium of publication for interesting local medical cases, promote communication and reduce discord among the colony's medical practitioners, and advance local medical knowledge. He wrote editorials, and prepared abstracts of important papers, cases and events published overseas. Others published interesting cases, and Dr C.W.L. Pappe* contributed an important paper on local medicinal plants.

Ebden's editorial in the July 1847 issue of the Gazette is of particular interest because it deals with the introduction of ether as an anaesthetic at the Cape. Following its successful application in the United States in 1846 and in Europe soon thereafter, medical practitioners and dentists at the Cape began experimenting with it in April 1847. The dentist A. Raymond* may have been the very first to use it, though Ebden, perhaps in collaboration with others, was experimenting with it during the same month. Initially he applied it by means of an ether soaked sponge which was placed within a bullock's bladder fitted with a mouth-piece, but soon began to use a more sophisticated valved apparatus obtained from England. Other practioners, such as W.G. Atherstone*, soon followed his lead. Only four issues of the Gazette appeared, in January, April, July and October 1847. The main reasons for its demise were that the cost of postage made it too expensive for country practitioners, and that Ebden left the Cape for India at the beginning of 1848.

For almost ten years Ebden worked in the Bengal medical establishment of the English East India Company. He was physician to the Indian rajahs of Rajputana and served throughout the so-called Indian Mutiny. Years later he published "A sketch of Rajputana in Western India" in the South African Magazine (1868, Vol. 2, pp. 577-591). Returning to the Cape in 1858, he opened a practice in Rondebosch, Cape Town, where he remained for the rest of his life. He opened a small cottage hospital in Rondebosch and was particularly renowned for his ophthalmic work. Setting high standards of professional ethics and conduct, he was a very popular physician. He served on the Colonial Medical Committee from 1859, having been a member also in 1847. In 1862 he became its president, a position he retained to his death. During the same year he became president of the Medical Board of Management of the New Somerset Hospital. He served on the Board of Medical Examiners, and was a member of council of both the South African College (1866 to about 1880) and the University of the Cape of Good Hope (1873 to 1885). From 1877 to 1878 he served on the first council of the South African Philosophical Society, and remained a member of the society for the rest of his life. In 1883 he became the first president of the (first) South African Medical Association, until his death in 1886 of pernicious aenemia.

Ebden was married to Laura Henrietta, born Twentyman, who died in 1878.

List of sources:
Burrows, E.G. A history of medicine in South Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1958.

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

Cape Town Medical Gazette, 1847, Vol. 1, No. 1-4.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

General directory and guide-book to the Cape of Good Hope and its dependencies, 1885, 1886.

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

Murray, C.F.K. Presidential address. South African Medical Journal, series 1, 1887, Vol. 3, pp. 34-35.

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

Ritchie, W. The history of the South African College, 1829-1918. Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1918.

South African bibliography to the year 1925, Vol. 5, Supplement. Cape Town: South African Library, 1991.

South African Commercial Advertiser, 21 October 1846, p. 1, Ebden's advertissement; 7 November 1846, p. 1: Ebden's circular; 22 October 1851, p. 2: "The late Dr Francis Fleck"

South African Medical Journal, series 1, 1884, Vol. 1, p. 2: Advertissement, SA Medical Association.

South African Philosophical Society. Transactions, 1877-1883, Vol. 1-3, lists of members and office bearers.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1875-1885/6.

Compiled by: C. Plug