Sunday, 12 June 2011

Wilberforce James Arnold

Jamestown, Grand Parade, Dr. Arnold Memorial, April 2010

Text from Trevor Hearl’s narrative on the St. Helena 2002 80p stamp commemorating Dr. Arnold (1867-1925).

Wilberforce John James Arnold is commemorated on the obelisk in the Grand Parade, Jamestown, as "the greatest friend St Helena ever had”.  This is no exaggeration when it is considered that, over a period of twenty years, he carried the responsibilities of physician, surgeon, dentist, health officer, Justice of Peace, Member of Council and, on three occasions, Acting Governor.  Arnold was born in Belfast where he received his medical training at Queen's College, and began his career in 1895 as a surgeon at Aberdare, among the coal mines of South Wales.

In 1900 the Anglo-Boer War brought him to St Helena with the Volunteer Medical Staff Corps, to attend the troops and the Boer prisoners' hospital in Jamestown.  In 1903 he was appointed Colonial Surgeon and Health Officer, becoming so devoted to the work that, despite the low salary (£200-£300 p.a. 'plus horse allowance'), pressure of work, usually as the only doctor, and his own indifferent health, he spent most of his life in the Island's service.  Arnold, who was a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, left St. Helena but twice to study ways of meeting the island’s particular medical problems.  During the First World War (1914-18) he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps on hospital ships and in Palestine, reaching the rank of Major, returning to St Helena in 1920 “to cheers from the crowds” at the Wharf.

Dr. Arnold Memorial, Inscription, April 2010

It was not only his diligence and willingness to serve the Island in so many roles that earned him the love and respect of all classes, but his caring manner and the missionary zeal which imbued all his work, derived from his Presbyterian background.  He never stinted in his labours, visiting the sick and elderly, supporting charities from his meagre funds, paying fees rather than accept them from the poor, while living frugally as a bachelor, latterly at Maldivia by courtesy of the owner.  His work in preventive medicine, instilling basic rules of diet, hygiene and public health, are said to have cut the death rate by two-thirds - from 17.3 to 6.4 per thousand - within ten years (1899-1909).  In November 1924 Dr Arnold's life was saved by an emergency operation performed by a visiting naval surgeon.  Though far from well he resumed his duties, not only as the lone medical Officer, but as Acting Chief Justice and Acting Governor, and it was while attending a ceremony at Longwood in this capacity that he collapsed and died on 27 January 1925. He was 57 and it is said that half the population flocked to his funeral.

There are articles about Dr. Arnold in Wirebird, Spring 1991 and Wirebird, Autumn 1995.

1 comment:

John Brian Arnold said...

Dr Arnold was the cousin of my grandfather John Corry Arnold, also from near Belfast. I believe their fathers were brothers and they corresponded and knew each other well. The Presbyterian church in Ireland was a powerful force in both their lives. My great grandfather, the Rev Robert James Arnold was the first minister of the Presbyterian church in Dunmurry south of Belfast. Dr Arnold's name is carried to this day by my uncle Christopher Wilberforce Arnold b.1925, the year of Dr Arnold's death.