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Leader Dominic Stirling

Medical missionary and former health minister Tanzania (b 1906; q London 1929; FRCS (hon) 1996), died in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 February 2003.

With the death of Dr Leader Dominic Stirling, Africa has lost one of its most prominent medical missionary pioneers. He studied at the London Hospital, which, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, had such greats as Hugh Cairns, Henry Souttar, Robert Hutchinson, and Bernard Dawson on the teaching staff.

He arrived in Tanzania in 1935 to work in the southern part of the country as a medical missionary with the Universities Mission to Central Africa. After a short period working in Masasi he moved to a more remote area to design and build his first hospital. At that time there were few roads and no transport—all visits were on foot and by bicycle. Despite extreme shortage of medical equipment he was able to give a high level of service. There was no recourse to immediate help from outside the region, which was cut off from the rest of Tanzania in the rainy season. Through his surgical experience at the London Hospital he was able to carry out surgical emergencies of all types. His surgical skill was of a high order and he designed an operation for elephantiasis of the scrotum, just recently published.

From the basics of sterilisation of equipment to the design and building of the operating theatre and the production of his own intravenous fluids, he was able to apply his surgical skill to a large range of conditions from head injuries, hernias, and fractures. His diagnostic skill was uncanny and his intimate knowledge of the country and its diseases helped him to avoid serious mistakes.

After 14 years and with a change to Catholicism he moved to another area, where he again designed and built a hospital, which still stands and is in use today. He was the first doctor in Tanzania to start nurse training and that despite the opposition of some elements in the colonial government. With the move to his second hospital he trained male nurses.

His final move—after a disagreement on black nurse advancement with the hospital board—was to the slopes of Kilimanjaro, where he supervised the building of yet another hospital and became its first and for a time its only doctor.

From before independence in 1961, he became an MP until 1983. In "retirement" he moved to a mountainous region of Tanzania, where he operated every day at the local hospitals. This period came to an abrupt end when, at the age of 70 he was asked by President Nyerere to be minister of health. This post he held for six years.

He went to Africa as an Anglican missionary, later becoming Catholic, but remained steadfast to the Christian faith throughout his life.

Not content with the field of medicine he introduced scouting to Tanzania, becoming the country’s chief scout for 10 years.

Leader Stirling was a man of many talents, with an approach to life and his missionary work that was totally dedicated. His identification with Africa was complete—once making the statement that "I am becoming blacker and blacker but it doesn’t show on the outside."

Working singlehanded for 27 years he became a much loved and respected doctor.

Long into his eventual retirement he continued to serve on the boards of Christian and medical organisations.

Starting to practice in Africa before the antibiotic era was a huge challenge but keeping up with the advances and changes was his forte. As a lecturer and teacher he was excellent; at the age of 91 he gave a paper at a surgical conference in Dar es Salaam. There are three editions of his autobiography with details of his life and experiences.

He was always a delight to meet. His memory was sharp and clear right to the end. He enjoyed recalling some of the myriad experiences he had long ago including his first use of penicillin to save the life of a hospital matron with streptococcal septicaemia.

Leader Stirling was the last of that great generation of missionary doctors who developed hospitals and medical systems that served the people. No problem was too difficult to tackle, no effort too much to reach and treat the sick. His example is one of selfless dedication combined with a warmth of humanity. He leaves a rich legacy of family, friends, and the many medical and nursing personnel whom he developed and trained.

He is survived by his second wife, Annah Chisonga, and his stepchildren.
[ K C Rankin ]