Tales of a travelling doctor: ‘neither science nor disease knows any frontiers’

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By | From the Collections

Melville Douglas Mackenzie (1889-1972) was no ordinary doctor. In his lifespan, he travelled the globe providing relief and support to countries stricken with cholera, typhus, malaria, and other rapidly spreading contagions. His travels took him from Mesopotamia to Russia, and from Russia to Greece, Bulgaria, Bolivia, Singapore and China, witnessing wars, revolutions and famines along the way. His papers, including detailed letters home and vivid accounts of his travels, have just been catalogued at the Wellcome Library.

McKenzie with a sloth in Bolivia, 1930

Melville Douglas Mackenzie and sloth, Bolivia, 1930.

Mackenzie’s first post was to Mesopotamia in 1916 as a member of Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). Working at a hospital in Basra, he treated cases of cholera, small pox, typhus, plague and fever. Not content with just curing people, Mackenzie also had responsibility for treating foot and mouth disease among Indian bulls, which were used to draw artillery on the battlefields.

After his time serving with the RAMC in WWI, where he saw the fall of Baghdad, Mackenzie returned home to England, continuing work on infectious diseases at the port of Liverpool. This work involved inspecting ships out at sea to make sure that the crew, patients and goods were free of infection or disease before landing. Mackenzie’s papers include personal accounts of his life in England from 1919 to 1922, including his time in Huddersfield, Liverpool and Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1922, Mackenzie left his post in Liverpool to help with famine relief efforts in Russia, focusing on the control of typhus. Mackenzie travelled to Russia on behalf of the Society of Friends, as a member of Friends Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee (FEWVRC).

The Relief Expedition was a huge operation, during which Mackenzie worked to manage outbreaks of cholera and typhus fever, supplying rations and medical supplies to those most in need, and providing advice on controlling and preventing the spread of disease. As with any crisis, it was essential that doctors and volunteers were suitably prepared for the mission, with adequate supplies to cope with the harsh climate. The incredibly detailed and lengthy lists of supplies and equipment required on the expedition contained in PP/MDM/A/2/4 highlight the complexity of the task in hand.

As well as planning general sanitary work, organising inoculation, and coordinating equipment for hospitals, Mackenzie also designed louse-proof protective clothing for workers to wear; an essential to prevent the spread of typhus fever. Two years into the mission in Russia – and despite his insect-proof clothing – Mackenzie was invalided home with relapsing fever and malaria.

In 1928, Mackenzie joined the staff of the League of Nations (LNHO), where his first assignment was a public health survey of Greece, to address the dengue epidemic which was crippling the country. After visiting towns and cities and surveying sanitary conditions, resources, and local medical services, Mackenzie made recommendations for improving hygiene standards and creating a centrally organised health service.

One of Mackenzie’s most adventurous and dangerous missions was to Bolivia in 1930. Mackenzie trekked across the country by mule, air and train, crossing the Andes eight times, and sleeping under the stars in the Amazonian rainforest.

Pascua and Mackenzie Bolivia

Bolivia: Dr Pascua (left), Mackenzie (centre), and a railway worker (right) in Puno aboard the wagon just before their escape, c.1930.

Based on his observations, Mackenzie made recommendations for the re-organisation of the Bolivia’s health services. His conclusions from the nine-month visit are written up in a detailed 118-page official report, which considers the social and economic situation of the country, alongside public health matters.

Besides official reports, Mackenzie recorded his adventures in the Amazonian climate in personal accounts and letters home. These accounts contain wonderfully vivid depictions of life in the tropics and the dangers Mackenzie faced, as well as his experiences as a medical man. In this account, he describes lying awake in the forest at night:


Bolivia personal accounts and correspondence, 1930. Wellcome Library reference: PP/MDM/A/3/3/1

Travelling back from Bolivia, Mackenzie was caught on the cusp of the revolution in South America. As routes out of the country became impassable and hazardous, Mackenzie’s journey was diverted and delayed. Eventually, he and his companion, Dr Pascua fled the dangers by hiding in a rail wagon in Puno for the trip to Mollendo.  These adventures are colourfully described in Mackenzie’s personal account of his time in Bolivia (PP/MDM/A/3/3/1), as this extract below demonstrates:

 Bolivia personal accounts and correspondence, 1930. Wellcome Library reference: PP/MDM/A/3/3/1

Bolivia personal accounts and correspondence, 1930. Wellcome Library reference: PP/MDM/A/3/3/1

Despite the danger faced in Bolivia, Mackenzie was not deterred from public health work. One year after returning from Bolivia, Mackenzie went overseas to Liberia, where he negotiated with the native Kru (Kroo) people, in an attempt to patch up relations between the tribes and government.

After this mission, Mackenzie visited Singapore to control the spread of cholera and plague between eastern countries, and later China, working with the Government to advise on the prevention of cholera, small pox, typhus and malaria.


Melville Douglas Mackenzie (second left) at the World Health Organisation c.1946.

Following the Second World War, Mackenzie became involved in the establishment of the World Health Organisation, as chief United Kingdom delegate to the first six assemblies of WHO. Mackenzie was also Chairman on the WHO executive board in 1953-1954. Despite this new workload, he continued to take on assignments abroad, conducting a tour of the Middle East, before travelling to Jamaica, and finally Morocco in 1960, to provide advice and support on public health and controlling the spread of epidemics.

Mackenzie’s extensive travels, minutely recorded in letters, personal accounts and reports, are now catalogued online under the reference PP/MDM. This documentary residue of Mackenzie’s life provides us with an incredibly vivid picture of public health abroad in the early twentieth century. As well as their medical significance, the records are also rich with details about the political, social, and economic climate of the countries he visited.

Readers researching Mackenzie’s early career may be interested to know that the Library of the Society of Friends holds microfilms of records concerning Mackenzie’s work for the Friends’ Emergency & War Victims Relief Committee, under the reference MIC 621. The archives of Friends Emergency and War Victims Relief Committee as a whole (1914-1924) are in the process of re-cataloguing under a funded project; please contact the Society of Friends for further details.

Author: Elena Carter is a project archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Elena Carter

Elena Carter

Tavistock Institute of Human Relations Archivist, based at the Wellcome Library. Working on a project to catalogue, make accessible and promote the rich and vast archive of TIHR, documenting 70 years of the Institute’s contribution to the evolution of applied social science. I like biscuits with my tea, swimming outdoors, and post-war architecture. I also like elephants. @elenacarter17

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