William Burchell’s medical challenges: A 19th-century natural philosopher in the field

  • R Stewart


Two hundred years ago, the naturalist William John Burchell departed from Cape Town on extensive travels in South Africa ‘solely for the purpose of acquiring knowledge’. An intelligent observer who was exceptionally skilled at recording his observations in words and pictures, he is remembered for numerous contributions to the country as scientist, artist and ethnographer. The medical perspective on his travels has yet to receive attention. He identified and recorded illnesses of the indigenous peoples with whom he came into contact. He also described the medical care he
administered to his companions and to himself; in doing so, he revealed a profound care for his ‘fellow creatures’. His vivid and sometimes poignant descriptions remind us of some of the health risks endured by early travellers in the country. One of the most riveting is his successful care of an assistant whose left hand was severely mutilated when a firearm exploded in his hands. Burchell was probably the first person to include the materia medica of the Khoi in an essentially European approach to the non-surgical management of such a serious condition.

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 0256-95749
print ISSN: 2078-5135