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Bill Thayer

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Part IV
This webpage reproduces part of
Tristan da Cunha

by Douglas M. Gane

published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Part V (b)

Part V
The Health Perfections of the People

 p137  (a) Their Physical Health

A picturesque introduction to the island's vitality is given by Mr. Hammond Tooke in his report of 1904, and it is the more convincing if read in conjunction with the description by an anonymous writer who visited it shortly before and which was afterwards published in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Dr. Gray, the Bishop of Cape Town, on the occasion of his visit to the island in 1856 had already remarked on the "fine, healthy, active, modest young men and women," and now, on the arrival of H. M. S. Odin, Mr. Tooke, as he nears the shore in one of the island boats, describes the children on the sea beach as they were running from one landing-place to another to meet them. In clean white calico dresses, white woollen stockings, and small calf-skin shoes which a little way off were scarcely visible, he says, they appeared at a distance like a troup of stage fairies in an operatic ballet, a resemblance hastened by the mise en scène — the green meadow in the background, a fern-fringed cascade in the middle distance, in the foreground the white foam breaking on the  p138 glistening black sand, all in the light of a bright morning sun.

And what were these children like on closer acquaintance? Were they the healthy human beings of their promise? The visitor referred to describes them, and he says that on landing he was met by the chief boatman who was to be his host and whose little thatched roof cottage was to be his home. The boatman's wife came forward to receive him, with two sturdy little children clinging to her skirts. Like her husband, she looked the picture of rude health, and as for the children, they laughed, ran, and jumped as only children can who spend the greater part of their lives out of doors. When subsequently the question of infantile complaints was broached, he said he was assured that the children on the island were virtually free from all forms of disease, and this immunity extended to the men and women. And the writer adds: "As I learnt and saw more of the islanders, I was struck with the excellence of their physique, notwithstanding the fact that for three generations they had been marrying and giving in marriage amongst themselves. Their personal appearance effectually disposed of any idea of physical deterioration. Broad-shouldered, lithesome and sinewy, they gave ample evidence of fine physical power. And their standard of morality seemed to be on an equally high plane, and this, too, in a place where education —  p139 the surest safeguard against crime, we are told — was practically non‑existent." Though they looked a "pretty wild lot," as we read, with cast‑off garments acquired from sailors of passing ships and some with home-made clothing of canvas and others with coats and pants of sheep- or goat-skins, yet their manner was wholly at variance with their looks. There was something in their bearing which in a woman would have been termed shyness. Their voices were quiet and not unpleasant in tone, and when they became merry, instead of boisterous mirth, they laughed quietly. They had apparently the simplicity and guilelessness of children.

The record of health on the island is exceptional. From the year 1817, when William Glass founded the Settlement, to his death, in 1853, there had been only six deaths there from natural causes in a community which, in 1824, numbered twenty-five, in 1836 forty‑two, and in 1853 as many as ninety-five, and three of these deaths were of old men and three of children. When H. M. S. Herald called there in 1852, the commanding officer, Captain Denham, wrote that, in his opinion, "a more healthy place could not be found, none of the epidemical diseases having reached it; nor were the children subject to any complaints or illnesses common to children." And subsequently, when H. M. S. Wolverine visited the island, namely, in 1876, the medical officer reported that the people boast that  p140 they have no diseases, and the only cause of death amongst them is old age and accident. In fact, as Peter Green is reported to have said two years later, the medicine chest in his home had not been replenished for about twenty years, so people could not afford the luxury of being ill. And those who have been in contact with the island fail to detect deterioration. The commander of the Thrush, which visited the island in 1903, stated in his report that there was no definite sign of any mental or physical deterioration arising from the system of inter-marriage; and, with regard to their reluctance to express themselves adequately, he takes this to be only the natural result of a cutting‑off of any small colony of persons from the outside world. The soundness of this view has since been confirmed by the Rev. H. M. Rogers and by the medical officer of the Quest, which, in the course of the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, visited Tristan to make a new scientific survey of it. The Rev. H. M. Rogers, in his first article in The Times, stated in this connection that the population is, save in about three cases, neither mentally nor morally deficient; and Dr. Mecklin, the medical officer of the Quest, said that the islanders were healthy and not suffering from degeneration, as reported.

The answer to this question, however, has since been put on a more authoritative basis, for, at the  p141 request of the Union Government, Fleet Medical Officer Surgeon-Commander Rickard accompanied the Dublin on its visit in 1923 in order to furnish a "comprehensive report on the condition of life of the inhabitants, their mental capacity, and general physical development," and the report deals with the question of inter-marriage. "It has been suggested," it runs, "that from constant inter-breeding the community has become, or in the future will become, degenerate"; and to this suggestion the following rejoinder is given: —

"With this statement I entirely disagree," Commander Rickard says."If the parents are of healthy stock, their offspring should not only be free from any tendency to disease, but will inherit accumulated tendencies to health. In the case of the islanders, the affinity is collateral, and very many degrees removed, as there are eight separate families, and this will allow very many combinations in the dilution of blood to be made. I consider that the inhabitants show no signs of deterioration, and see no reason why they should do so. They are physically above the average, the children being exceptionally so, and the condition of their teeth is almost perfect. They are extremely shy and reserved, with not much animation of expression, and this may have been mistaken for dullness of intellect by the ignorant. When once this reserve is conquered, they are found to be intelligent, simple, and kindly, revealing a courtesy which is most uncommon in these days in people of their class in the social scale. They suffer from lack of education, only 20 per cent being able to read or write, and consequently their vocabulary is small, and they have no knowledge of  p142 anything outside their own narrow circle; but, in their own sphere, they show considerable skill and intelligence, their boats, built from scanty and unpromising materials, being works of art."

And now the island's record in the matter of health is brought up to date by the report of Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander Sampson made on the recent visit of H. M. S. Carlisle. The medical examination, it says, showed the islanders to be of good physique and well-nourished. Among the children there was no evidence of rickets, and such diseases as scarlatina, diphtheria, mumps, measles, whooping-cough, etc., were unknown amongst them, and all the chests examined were free from any physical (phthisical?) signs.1

Obviously there are no grounds for the suggestion of deterioration. The Settlement is only  p143 117 years old. The population, originally solely British, has been refreshed by the admixture of American, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Cape, and St. Helena blood, and it is necessary only to note the fluctuation in the size of the community during its short history to realize the changes which have from time to time come about in its personnel if what are called the "old hands" be excepted. In 1880 there was a population of 109, and this declined, until in 1893 there were only 52 people on the island. Then a slow revival set in, the numbers reaching 80 in 1907, and by the year 1930 as many as 119. The present population numbers 163, and is the largest on record.2

To introduce the subject of disease in connection with Tristan da Cunha seems perverse in view of the healthy conditions that prevail there. But William Glass, the founder of the Settlement, died there of  p144 cancer, the one solitary instance of malignant disease on the island, and, at a time when inquiry regarding the nature of this disease is more and more rife, the question may well be asked whether there is nothing to be learnt from it.

The nature of the malady which Glass had developed was established by a medical man in the course of his two visits to the island in a passing ship, and a description of it was given by the missionary, the Rev. W. F. Taylor, in the narrative of his mission published on his return. Mr. Taylor tells us that when he reached Tristan the disease was nothing more than a small speck on the lip, much like a little wart. At first it was thought to be one, but by and by it began to spread, though at first slowly, until at length it entirely ate away the side of his face and laid the whole neck bare from the windpipe to the ear.

There was nothing to show that the disease was communicated to William Glass, and there has been equally nothing to show that it has been communicated by him. The case stands in monumental isolation in the midst of a community midway in its history of more than a hundred years, cut off from the outside world as it is, and with its members living in the closest intimacy a simple life and with all the limitations and safeguards of a simple diet. And furthermore, in those days there were no rats or fleas on the island, though they abound now  p145 and have done for many years, and this is significant in view of the theory propounded that cancer is a parasitic disease, that there are cancer houses and cancer streets and that where vermin is plentiful it is always prevalent.

When the disease appeared, Glass had been thirty-seven years on the island without a break, except for one short visit which he had paid to the Cape thirty‑one years before. As already stated, he died in 1853, and prior to his death there had, as already stated, been only five deaths on the island since its occupation, and two of these were of old men and three of children. One of the old men, who was a derelict creature, found on the island when Glass arrived, died in the early days, and the death of the other was due to accident. Of the children, one was drowned, another burnt to death, and the third died from exposure on the mountain.

And that there was no recurrence of the disease following the death of Glass there is much to show. Few communities are the subject of a periodical medical examination such as it has been the fate or privilege of Tristan da Cunha for many years to undergo. As already shown, the visits of men-of‑war in the past were frequent, and on each occasion a medical inspection of the inhabitants was made and a report issued by the medical officer of the ship. No mention has ever been made in these reports of any maladies except those of a trivial  p146 nature, and the general effect of them may be summed up in the statement made in one of them which has already been quoted that "a population numbering ninety‑one and living under the healthiest conditions can afford little material for such a report. The people boast that they have no diseases and that the only cause of death amongst them is old age."

That cancer should appear at all in a community amidst healthy conditions that have sufficed throughout to exclude all other forms of disease is at least a striking phenomenon. But, having appeared, it is equally striking that the island should still display an immunity that is not shown in larger communities. For with the one death in a population of hundred more or less over a period exceeding a century, no comparison in point of average is furnished with our 57,000 deaths per annum in a population of nearly 38 millions for England and Wales. This may well be deserving of note for what it is worth in cancer research.

The case of cancer on Tristan da Cunha inevitably takes the mind back to the reputed case on the neighbouring island of St. Helena, that of Napoleon. The Emperor had been six years there before he died, and though the isolation in St. Helena was not what it was in Tristan, there was a measure of detachment from outside causes that would seem to place the two cases on somewhat parallel lines.  p147 But the case of Napoleon does not afford a safe analogy, for the diagnosis of his disease made at the time of his death is now a controversial topic in scientific quarters, and the inferences drawn from it which have exercised dominion over the minds of students are now suspended.

The Author's Notes:

1 The same immunity prevailed amongst the inhabitants of St. Kilda, but, apparently, from the following Press report, with their removal to the Scottish mainland it no longer exists: —

Natives of the island of St. Kilda, who never suffered from illness while they resided on the lone rock surrounded by the Atlantic breakers, have fallen victims in the comfort of their mainland settlement to measles and scarlet fever.

Every member of the little colony that has settled in Kincardineshire has suffered. Not even old Finlay MacQueen, the seventy‑year‑old patriarch, has been exempt, and in the family of Mr. Neil Ferguson, formerly the postmaster of the island, he, his wife, their son and daughter-in‑law are all ill.

In the history of the island there was never a single case of measles, scarlet fever, or whooping-cough, but since the islanders came to the mainland illness has been rife among them. — The Sunday Times, April 10, 1932 (from its Glasgow correspondent).

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2 The things said of the people of Tristan regarding the effects of inter-marriage have been said of the Pitcairn islanders, and Mr. Richard Whiteing, in the introduction to his story, The Island, meets the statements with a caustic rejoinder. "They tell me," he says, "that my islanders are beginning to degenerate by in‑breeding, both in body and mind. Are they quite sure that the evil, in so far as it affects the spiritual part, does not lie rather with the observers than with the observed? I once read a French story in which it suited the purpose of the hero to feign insanity for a while. He accomplished it in the simplest way in the world — by leading a perfectly rational life. When he had something to say, he said it, and he never made idle talk. When he had eaten his fill he rose from the table. In warm weather, he laid aside all purely ceremonial clothing. In history, he lived according to reason, and he spoke the truth. The doctors agreed that it was an extremely bad case, and they had him in a strait-jacket in less than a week."

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