Tribute - Dr John Andrew Mahoney (1919-2012) Gambian surgeon, health administrator and international civil servant

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dr. John Mahoney, who died on Monday aged 93, was one of the early corps of Gambian surgeons trained in the top universities in the UK during the 1940s and 1950s. Like Dr. Sam Palmer who passed away 2010, Dr Mahoney served in the colonial and post colonial medical services, and should be remembered for his selfless service to the motherland as a medical officer at Bansang, RVH, and from 1964 as Chief Medical Officer (Director of Medical Service), and Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health soon after independence in 1965.

Significantly, his demise affords us the opportunity to reflect on certain aspects of Gambian medical history, with particular attention on the few Gambian medical doctors in the colonial period, and the dire health conditions which they had to grapple with upon their return home from studies to serve their people.

In the colonial period, medical services were almost non-existent for the majority of Gambians. This led to high mortality rates. For much of the 1940s for example, our death rate was higher than our birth rate. For example, in 1941, out of 1730 in-patients at the Bathurst Royal Victoria Hospital, 171 died; in 1942, 185 out of 1815 in-patients died at the same hospital. This high death rate was largely due to the preventable disease like malaria, yellow fever and malnutrition.

If the colonial authorities did anything to alleviate this sad situation, it was not to train doctors. The very few Gambian doctors from the 1930s to the early 1960s such as Dr. SHO Jones, Dr. Richards, Dr. F. Blain, Dr. ROW Carrol, Dr. John Mahoney, Dr. S. Bidwell, Dr. S. Palmer, Dr. Bani Forster, Dr. Pet Carrol, Dr. Peters, Dr. M. Samba, were trained largely out of family support and not Colonial Government scholarship. For example, Dr SHO Jones, our first Gambian Director of Medical Health, graduated in 1932 in the UK thanks to sponsorship of his mother, Ms Gabbidon, a redoubtable business woman of Bathurst in the 1910s; Dr Bani Forster, our first Psychiatrist, was sponsored through medical college by his mother, the ardent patriot Hannah Forster (1893-1966). Yet, when this First Generation of medical doctors returned home from abroad, they dutifully served. They were overwhelmed. Dr. Jones was for decades the only medical doctor serving the entire Protectorate; while Dr Mahoney combined his Civil Service job as Director of Medical Services, with that of Permanent Secretary, Ministry of  Health in the 1960s, at the same time. If not overworked, they faced racist discrimination. Dr. Bani Forster one of Africa’s first psychiatrists, left the colonial service due to discrimination and was warmly welcome in Accra by Dr Nkrumah; similarly, our first female surgeon, Pet Carroll, was forced to relocate to Scotland also due to colonial intransigence. Patriotic Gambians were appalled by this state of affairs.

Dr. Mahoney was born 10 March 1919 to Sir John Mahoney and Hannah Mahoney, members of the  vibrant and highly gentle Bathurst Aku elite of the first three decades of the last century, who saved their hard earned monies to give their children the best education then available anywhere in the commonwealth: Oxford, Cambridge, and London universities. He attended  the prestigious Methodist Boys High School in Bathurst, and studied medicine at the University of London where he qualified as a surgeon and entered the Gambian Civil Service in December 1951 as Medical Officer. He served at Bansang and Royal Victoria Hospital, until 1964 when he replaced Dr SHO Jones as Director of Medical Services. Dr Mahoney therefore became the second Gambian to occupy this exalted position. In 1952, he married Florence Peters, now Dr Florence Mahoney, the first Gambian woman graduate and PHD holder, a great historian who has single-handedly helped to decolonise Gambian history thanks to her seminal publications and efforts to establish the Gambian Archives and Museum. In 1973, Dr Mahoney retired from the Civil Service to take up a post of Director of programmes at the WHO Africa Regional Office in Brazzaville. There he was in good company of another illustrious Gambian medic, E. Dr Bidwell.

To Dr Florence Mahoney and family, I extend my condolences.

(Dr John Andrew Mahoney, (M.R.C.S), Gambian surgeon, health administrator and international civil servant, born 1919, died 30 January, 2012.)

Author: Hassoum Ceesay, Historian