The People’s Hospital: A History of McCords, Durban, 1890s-1970s

Durban’s iconic 109-year old former mission hospital, McCord, is the subject of a carefully-documented, thoroughly-researched, and highly readable book which will be available in print and download format from mid-April 2018.
The People’s Hospital: A History of McCords, Durban, 1890s-1970s is written by Julie Parle and Vanessa Noble and published by the Natal Society Foundation Trust.
In recent years a provincially-run specialist eye hospital, McCord Hospital was founded in 1909 by missionaries Dr James McCord and his wife Margaret. It became one of the three most important hospitals in South Africa. For 100 years it was globally recognised as providing principled, quality, holistic, affordable health-care.
The McCords worked for the American Board of Missions. They had come to South Africa to work at Adams Mission, Amanzimtoti, in 1899. In 1904 they moved to Durban and established a dispensary and cottage hospital in Beatrice Street. The remarkable Katie Makanya worked with them as interpreter, cultural broker and nursing assistant. There they performed operations, dispensed medicine and spread the Christian faith.
Defying opposition from some local residents, they opened a hospital on the crest of the Berea in 1909. Although it was popularly known as ‘McCord Zulu Hospital’, and strongly supported by people such as Rev. Dr. John L Dube and Chief Albert Luthuli, this was never a hospital only ‘for Zulus’. Instead, it became a meeting place of many peoples, faiths, and political persuasions.
McCord Hospital played a vital role in opening professional midwifery, nursing and medical training for black South Africans. Amongst the names of pioneering nurses were Beatrice Gcabashe (née Msimang) from many prominent families – Buthelezi, Funeka, Goba, Linda, Luthuli, Mageba, Moonsamy, Nayiager, (amongst very many others).
Dr McCord, and superintendent, Dr Alan Taylor, were instrumental in the establishment of Durban’s Nelson R Mandela Medical School. Notable South Africans, such as Drs J. L Njonkwe, Mary Malahlela, Mahomed Mayat, Krishna Somers, and Zweli Mkhize, to mention only a few, all completed medical training at McCord Hospital.
Situated at the crossroads of Berea, Sydenham and Overport and challenging apartheid and racism daily, McCords was targeted for closure as a ‘black hospital in a white area’ under the Group Areas Act, it was directly attacked by apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in the 1960s.
But, McCords fought back and survived. It did so under the leadership of the superintendents Alan Taylor, Howard Christofersen, and Cecil Orchard, and with the support of the under-privileged of Durban, for whom it had become an important family landmark as well as a medical facility.
McCords survived because apartheid forces did not understand that for several generations and for many communities, McCords was a ‘People’s Hospital’. This support and identity would help carry it through to the early twenty-first century with the conviction and courage, when necessary, to stand up against the state when its policies threatened the health of all South Africa’s people.
Authors Julie Parle and Vanessa Noble recount McCord Hospital’s many important achievements. They also look deeply and critically into the obstacles it faced and the difficult choices that sometimes had to be made. They show that its distinct ‘McCord character’ and the commitment of its staff to health-care left important legacies for the later decades of disease and denialism, with lessons for policy makers and health-care practitioners today.
Their book is both a history of a landmark Durban medical institution and of a rapidly changing South Africa, told through the eyes of those who sought to change it through compassion and commitment to health-care.
Julie Parle, Honorary Professor of History has published in the fields of Southern African mental health, medicine, archives, gender, ethics, emotions and archives. Vanessa Noble is a lecturer in Historical Studies. Her research focuses on the social histories of health and healing in Southern Africa, with a particular interest in biomedicine, medical education and professionalisation.

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