A Christmas (Island) Tale: The Story of Sara Maude Robertson

MacDougall, William Beriberi on Christmas Island PhD.1909 p.115 Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

MacDougall, William
Beriberi on Christmas Island
PhD.1909
p.115
Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

Sara Maude Robertson, University of Glasgow graduate, was literally a trailblazer. In 1901 she arrived on Christmas Island to treat a beriberi epidemic there. When she found that the hospital was in an appalling condition she burnt it down to force the manager to build a better one! This is certainly a remarkable act, made more notable by the fact that she was a woman in a time when sexism was endemic.

Sara graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Medicine in 1899, one of only eighteen female graduates. She didn’t simply pass her degree, she won several prizes along the way. In Physics, a subject which still struggles to attract women, she received a first class certificate. Other subjects she received certificates include: Ophthalmology, Practical Pharmacy and Embryology.

MacDougall, William Beriberi on Christmas Island PhD.1909 p.117 (top) Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

MacDougall, William
Beriberi on Christmas Island
PhD.1909
p.117 (top)
Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

When Sara arrived on Christmas Island, only two years after graduation, she was probably the only professional female there. It is not certain how she came to be working upon the island but was probably contracted by a phosphate mine manager. In the early twentieth century most Chinese workers arrived to work in the phosphate mines which were managed by the European settlers. Sara arrived to a beriberi epidemic; the disease, now known to be caused by a Vitamin B deficiency, weakens the sufferer hence the literal translation ‘I can’t, I can’t’. It has even been said that Sara ‘cured’ the disease there. Whether this is true or not, it is certain she was an important figure in the treatment of it.

MacDougall, William Beriberi on Christmas Island PhD.1909 f.p.20 (bottom) Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

MacDougall, William
Beriberi on Christmas Island
PhD.1909
f.p.20 (bottom)
Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Department

On 16th February 1907 Sarah married William MacDougall in the Presbyterian Church of Singapore. It is not certain how they met but he certainly also had a keen interest in beriberi disease on Christmas Island as well, writing a thesis on the subject at the University of Edinburgh in 1909. Fortunately he took photographs to illustrate his thesis which tell us much about the conditions on the island and the kind of work Sara would have done. One photo shows how devastating the disease could be, the caption reading, ‘in hospital 3½ years’.

It is clear that Sara never allowed the lesser status afforded to women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faze her. As well as graduating in the first decade which allowed women to do so, she worked abroad and refused to accept poor conditions for her patients. Her early death on Christmas Island in 1907 halted what was already a brilliant, pioneering career. It is testament to her tenacity that, despite a frustrating lack of information, she is remembered to this day.

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2 Comments

Filed under Commonwealth of Nations, Oceania

2 responses to “A Christmas (Island) Tale: The Story of Sara Maude Robertson

  1. Heather Thomson

    Thank you, Kimberley, for drawing attention to a truly remarkable woman. Her gravestone on Christmas Island is being restored as part of a heritage project and your contribution is greatly appreciated. Sara’s story is one that needs to be not only shared but celebrated.

    • kimberleybeasley

      I agree that she should be celebrated, I hope you can find more about her. Good luck with the restoration and the project! Kim

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