Obituary: Anne Spoerry

Fiammetta Rocco
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:06

NO ONE meeting Anne Spoerry - physician, aviator and adventurer - could forget her two greatest attributes: a heart of gold and the Big Voice she always wrote of with capital letters and which she developed specially, as she put it, "to get things done".

In 1964, in Kenya, Spoerry put both characteristics to good service when she offered her medical experience and a newly acquired Piper Cherokee 235 to what was then known as the Flying Doctor Service. She had learned to fly just a year earlier when she was already 45. Her offering doubled the fledgling organisation's flying capacity which until then had depended entirely on the founder's own small aeroplane.

For more than 20 years afterwards, Spoerry organised fund-raising, medical training and immunisation programmes as well as conducting regular flying- doctor clinics under the shady wing of her little plane all over Kenya's northern district and around Lamu as far as the Somali border. If Amref, as the Flying Doctors' Service is now known, is the successful organisation it is today, it is in large measure thanks to Spoerry's cheerful and energetic presence, her generous (though little-trumpeted) financial contribution and her Big Voice.

Anne Spoerry was born into a comfortable Alsace family that had moved from Switzerland to Mulhouse in 1848 to begin a textile business. She spoke fluent French, German and English, thanks first to an English governess and later to the two years she spent in London at Francis Holland School, Graham Terrace. Although she had once dreamed of studying history of art at Oxford, in 1938 she began a year-long pre-med course at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. That same year, she and a group of fellow medical students embarked on a two-week cruise of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, whetting her appetite for travelling which would lead her, nearly 10 years later, to Kenya.

Unwilling to allow the outbreak of the Second World War to interrupt her studies, Spoerry found by 1940 that she was the only member of her family left living in the occupied zone. Her parents had moved to their holiday home at Partigon, while her brother Francois, who would later make his name as an architect and developer of Port Grimaud, the lagoon village in the bay of St-Tropez, was also in the south working with Jean Bernard, the Resistance leader in the South of France who was so close to the Special Operations Executive.

Anne Spoerry joined the team, and, while her brother used an architectural research project in Aix-en-Provence to shield his work for the Resistance, Anne ran a safe house in Paris from which she looked after the SOE operatives sent there from London. In April 1943 she was arrested a few days after her brother. She spent the remainder of the war incarcerated in a German concentration camp in Ravensbruck, where she was eventually freed by the Swedish Red Cross just days before Hitler's suicide.

After the war ended, it was Francois Spoerry's marriage to Joy Besse, the daughter of a neighbour in Partigon, that set Anne Spoerry on the path to Kenya. Joy's father, Antonin Besse, was a wealthy merchant with a large and expanding business centred on Aden and Beirut (he was also a great philanthropist; he founded St Antony's College, Oxford, and saved Gordonstoun from closure in the mid-1950s). Having rounded off her medical studies with a year in Basle, obtaining a Diploma in Tropical Medicine, in 1948 Spoerry sailed for Aden, where she found work first on a pilgrim ship belonging to Antonin Besse and later in the women's section of the local hospital. She visited Ethiopia and, eventually, Kenya, where she had friends.

During a second visit to Kenya in 1950, she became determined to stay. The government medical service was reluctant to take on a woman doctor, especially an unmarried one. But she soon learned that the farmers at Ol Kalou, in the Rift Valley, had founded a co-operative to be able to afford the services of a full-time doctor. At the age of 32, Spoerry had her first African medical job, covering 60 farms in a little Peugeot 203 station wagon with the company of a bull terrier named Winny after Winston Churchill. She soon, too, bought a farm close by, and began playing polo and hunting to hounds.

Spoerry lived through the Mau Mau at Ol Kalou, during which she nursed whites and Africans alike (and took time to found Ol Kalou's first troop of Girl Guides). But, when Kenya became independent, all the farms owned by whites around Ol Kalou were compulsorily purchased for redistribution under the "Million-Acre" scheme.

She was already taking flying lessons at a small airfield 30 miles north of Ol Kalou, at Subukia, and she bought another small farm there where she began spending weekends. During the week, her flying took her to Nairobi, where Michael Wood, a British plastic surgeon who had studied under Archibald McIndoe, invited her to join the newly established Flying Doctors of East Africa, later renamed Amref (African Medical Research Foundation).

Her first job was to start up regular flying clinics in the north-east of Kenya. Every five weeks, she made a long circuit, treating spear and gunshot wounds, and infectious diseases, as well as dispensing advice on family planning and immunisation. Over an area covering tens of thousands of square miles, Anne Spoerry became known as "Mama Daktari".

Founded to serve seriously ill and disabled people who had no access to modern medical care in Kenya's most remote corners, Amref is one of the continent's most remarkable organisations. In addition to emergency and evacuation services by air, it has developed a network of clinics providing basic health care and immunisation on the ground.

Anne Spoerry continued flying for Amref until last year, when she was 80. She never married, but her brother Francois remained her closest friend; he died three weeks ago. "What sort of man would have followed me in my peregrinations?" she would ask. But she made up for an absence of family with a huge collection of loving friends, old and young. One of them, George Fegan, last Saturday gave up the burial plot he had carefully chosen for himself years ago on the Indian ocean island of Lamu for his friend Anne Spoerry's mortal remains.

Anne Spoerry, medical practitioner: born Cannes, France 13 May 1918; died Nairobi 2 February 1999.

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