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A personal history: social medicine in a South African setting, 1952–5. Part 1: The shape of ideas forged in the second world war
  1. Mervyn Susser
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor M Susser
 Sergievsky Centre 630 West 168 St. Columbia University New York, NY 10032, USA; mws2{at}

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The second part of this personal history focusing on the ups, downs, and politics of social medicine in Alexandra Township, South Africa, will be published in the August issue of the journal.

This is a convoluted tale. After an unlikely beginning in South Africa, it meanders with the best of intentions through misadventure, debacle, and inadvertent emigration. South Africa became a Dominion of the British Empire by the Act of Union in 1910. The act united several constituencies into four provinces. In 1939, Barry Hertzog was prime minister of the “Fusion” government, and Jan Smuts was deputy prime minister. This was an unusual arrangement, a compromise reached after a close election between Hertzog (leader of the unremittingly anti-British Afrikaner Nationalist Party), and Smuts (leader of a broader, more catholic United Party). Both had been generals in the Boer war* (1899–1902) led by President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal Republic against Britain.

Thereafter, Smuts was a reliable British ally whom they held in great esteem (indicated after the second world war by his ceremonial position as chancellor of Oxford University). Although Smuts opted for a policy of reconciling the interests of English speaking with the Afrikaans speaking white population, in respect of the black population “his realpolitik” was scarcely enlightened. In the crucial vote in the 150 member parliament of whether to join Britain in the second world war, Smuts ousted the antiwar prime minister by a slim 13 vote margin.

In 1940 when this personal story begins, I was living with about 20 others in the small Men’s Residence of the Teacher’s Training College in Johannesburg. A youth of 18 interested mainly in studies of literature and history, this was my second year on a scholarship at Witwatersrand University (Wits). Even so my literary fare was limited. As a …

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  • * Boer, Afrikaans for farmer, was proudly adapted to describe those who opened the hinterland to appropriation and settlement.

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