Partners in Primary Care in the Northern Suburbs

Myer Hoffman (1902-1959)

As told by his daughter, Margaret Hoffman

Myer Hoffman
Myer in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland 1927

My late father Myer Hoffman practised medicine in the Northern Suburbs from 1929-1959 until his death.

Myer Hoffman was born in Leeds, England in 1902. He immigrated to South Africa in 1907 with his parents and two brothers on the mail ship the Arundel Castle. They settled in Maynard St, Cape Town with a number of other immigrant Jewish families. He and his brothers attended The South African College Schools.

After completing matric he did his first degree in Medicine, a Bachelor of Arts and Obstetrics (BAO) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). At that time, students having obtained this degree went to the UK to complete their medical studies. He attended Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. At UCT, the first full medical degree (MBChB) was awarded in 1922.

Myer Hoffman started general practice in the northern suburbs of Cape Town in 1929. He, with Dr Malan of Durbanville, were the first doctors to practise in the area. This was a large area extending from Goodwood to Bellville and included Vasco, Elsies River, Epping Tuin, Parow, Tiervlei as well as surrounding rural areas.

Attached to the house were the consulting rooms, a surgery, two waiting rooms and an enclosed stoep. The Coloured and African patients waited on the stoep while White patients waited in an indoor waiting room. All patients irrespective of race and colour were attended to in the surgery. This was long before apartheid. Segregation of the races was present in the early days of South Africa. It was only after the all-White general elections of 1948 that the Nationalist Party defeated the United Party and the apartheid laws legalizing segregation were introduced.

The thirties was a time of growth for the Northern Suburbs when many poor Whites were moving from rural farming areas to rapidly developing urban and surrounding areas. This followed the Carnegie Report commissioned to study the 'Poor White Problem' in South Africa in 1932. The Commission investigated poverty among White South Africans and made recommendations about segregation that some have argued would later serve as a blueprint for apartheid.

Myer Hoffman
Myer and Reeva in the surgery 1936

There was job reservation for the new arrivals and many of them were employed by the SA Railways as engine drivers, shunters, firemen, guards, inspectors and conductors on trains. It was a time of rapid growth of the population in the Northern Suburbs. Besides the railway workers there was development of an industrial area.

A number of doctors set up practices in the area in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of them were Jewish. Myer, as with other general practitioners in the area, besides having a private practice, attended to the railway workers and their families as well as the factory workers. The Government Railway Medical Services paid the doctors (who had a panel of railway patients) for services rendered as well as for medicines dispensed from the local pharmacy, Faull’s Chemist. It was always a treat visiting Annie Faull, who with Charles Faull, ran the pharmacy.

My dad had many tales to tell about his general practice. In his early days in the area he would ride a horse to visit patients as there were often only sandy paths. His surgery hours were twice a day and the rest of the time he did house calls. Of course, there were no mobile phones in those days and he was often exasperated when he could not get through to home from a public phone to find out if there were any other calls in the area as our phone was engaged. I would regularly get a talking to for occupying the line!

My father, as did doctors at that time, had a comprehensive family practice. From seeing minor ailments, chronic care, trauma, minor surgery, extracting teeth, to taking X-rays. He had an X-ray machine in the surgery and a dark room where he developed the films. Of course, there were the obstetric cases. He told the story when one evening he was called out to an urgent delivery (of a baby) and was surprised when he arrived there to find a noisy party taking place. He was told it was a wedding celebration and was taken to a back room where he found the bride in labour.

He was an excellent sportsman playing first team soccer for SACS, UCT and Ireland. He was a keen golfer and played off a scratch handicap. He was a founder member of Clovelly Country Club and King David Country Club. These were founded by Jewish sportsmen, for they, as well as non-Whites, were not accepted as members of a few of the established clubs. He spent time practising at the partly developed Parow Golf Club. Friday afternoon was for golf; this was followed by a visit to the Turkish baths in Cape Town and then coming home with treats from the city delicatessen for his family.

He was often late for surgery and I, as a young medical student, assisted him in the surgery and became adept at taking steel filings out of eyes, dressing wounds and syringing ears, treating backaches, giving out a few AP Cods and listening to many stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the surgery as well as going out on house calls with him or our assistant doctors. I was fascinated watching the children playing in the sand and observing the environment they lived in, so different to mine.

This, I think was the basis for my studying medicine and specializing in Public Health. It was my introduction to social medicine, seeing the patient as a member of the family and community.

One of the community clinics in Elsies River which we visited, was established in the 1940s as part of the Gluckman plan to develop a National Health Service for South Africa. Unfortunately, when the National Party won the elections in 1948, this plan was abruptly halted.

I have a memory of a particular incident in December, sometime in the mid-forties, when we were packing up for our summer holiday. It was late afternoon. There was a ring at the surgery door which I answered. At the door was an African man with his face almost covered with a cloth. He had just arrived from the Eastern Cape. My father arrived, took off the cloth to reveal a face covered with large vesicles. It was the last case of smallpox that occurred in South Africa. An ambulance was called, and he was taken to hospital.

Soon after, government officials arrived and fumigated the consulting rooms and our house. We were all vaccinated and put into isolation. In addition, there was a mass vaccination organized by government health services. When it became public knowledge, crowds gathered around our house. I remember standing on the upstairs balcony feeling very important.

Myer was a founder member of Rotary Club in the area and an active member of the local hospital board which was instrumental in the Province setting up Karl Bremer Hospital.

Our religious life was minimal. I did hear many stories from my sister Ruth who attended Cheder at Parow with the local Rabbi's wife as the teacher. I was relieved at that time that I did not have to attend. My family were founder members of the Jewish Reform Synagogue in Cape Town and celebrated all the Jewish High days with my grandparents. As a teenager I was a member of Jewish youth groups and became more aware of Jewish history and Zionism.

Entertainment at that time consisted of watching movies at home. My father had a 16mm film projector. It became a regular social occasion when friends would come over once a week to watch movies. We had one film called the "The Battle of the River Plate". This was a documentary of a German war ship, the Admiral Graf Spee, which entered South American waters during WWII. Occasionally we would go to the bioscope. There were two in Parow. I remember the Victoria where non-Whites sat upstairs and Whites downstairs.

My father was an avid gardener and with Solomon produced a beautiful show of flowers as well as a vegetable garden. I loved my early morning walks with him when he would give me a botany lesson. I also loved working in the garden with Solomon.

My mother Reeva 'did the books', sending out the accounts each month and was active in local politics. A staunch member of the United Party and an adjuvant in the South African Women’s Auxiliary Services which played an active role when, during WWII, troops visited Cape Town on route to the East. She was also an active member of the local Union of Jewish Women and visited Israel soon after the State was established. Similar to my father she was a keen sports woman and golfer.

Finally, I would like to mention that after graduating I married and went to live in the Northern Suburbs with my family. I was fortunate to have Donny Loon as our family doctor, colleague, teacher and friend. During this time and before returning to UCT to specialize in Public Health, I assisted Donny and a few other doctors practising in the area. He was an outstanding general practitioner and I learnt much about family medicine and life from him.

Prof Howard Phillips confirms that the last smallpox case was seen at Groote Schuur Hospital in the mid-1940s. There is no information as to what happened to this patient.

TOP