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David Livingstone's Life

Lithograph of Blantyre, David Livingstone's birthplace
Lithograph of Blantyre, David Livingstone's birthplace
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

David Livingstone was born 19 March 1813 to a working-class family in Blantyre, Scotland, the second of seven children. The family shared a room in a tenement building owned by the mill company where Livingstone started working at the age of ten. He was taught to read and write by his father, and in addition to schooling in the evenings provided by the company, he taught himself Latin and developed a love of natural history. At the age of 19 he was promoted and, with his increased wages, by 1836 he had saved enough money to enter Anderson's University, Glasgow to study medicine, where he studied under Andrew Buchanan MD. Two years later, he suspended his course and spent a year at the London Missionary Society in Chipping Ongar, Essex. He moved to London in 1840 to complete his medical studies at the British and Foreign Medical School, the Aldersgate Street Dispensary, Charing Cross Hospital and Moorfields Hospital, and at the end of the year he qualified as a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. That same month he was also ordained a missionary by the London Missionary Society and in December set sail for South Africa and onward to the mission station at Kuruman as a missionary doctor.

Lithograph of Livingstone and his party going down the Zambesi rapids
Lithograph of Livingstone and his party going down the Zambesi rapids
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

From 1841 until his death in 1873 Livingstone explored the interior of central and southern Africa. His initial aim was to spread Christianity and bring commerce and "civilisation" to these regions but his later missions were more concerned with exploration, firstly of the Zambesi and its tributaries, and later to find the source of the Nile. During this time he returned to Britain twice, in 1856 and in 1864.

Livingstone was one of the first medical missionaries to enter southern Africa, the first in central Africa, and he was often the first European to meet local tribes. He won their trust as a healer and medicine man and gained such a reputation amongst the villages he visited that he eventually had to limit his treatment only to those with serious illness. He was particularly sought for his skills in obstetrics, the surgical removal of tumours and ophthalmology.

Livingstone was a keen and accurate observer; he was also a prolific writer and his journals, letters and published narratives provide observations on African diseases such as tropical ulcer, scurvy and malaria. He was one of the first to administer quinine in a dosage that is now considered effective and thus, unlike previous expeditions in Africa, his parties of explorers suffered a comparatively low death rate.

Livingstone's Rousers
Livingstone's Rousers
Credit: The David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre/Gary Li
The recipe for this remedy, known as 'Livingstone's Rousers', was recorded in his travel writings and subsequently manufactured in tabloid form by the firm of Burroughs Wellcome and available until the 1920s. They are described in Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries; and of the discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa (1858-1864) as:

Livingstone's Rousers
Livingstone's Rousers
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

A remedy composed of from six to eight grains of resin of jalap, the same of rhubarb, and three each of calomel and quinine, made up into four pills, with tincture of cardamoms, usually relieved all the symptoms in five or six hours. Four pills are a full dose for a man -- one will suffice for a woman. They received from our men the name of "rousers", from their efficacy in rousing up even those most prostrated. When their operation is delayed, a dessert-spoonful of Epsom salts should be given. Quinine after or during the operation of the pills, in large doses every two or three hours, until deafness or cinchonism ensued, completed the cure. The only cases in which, we found ourselves completely helpless, were those in which obstinate vomiting ensued. (1865 edn, Chapter 3, note 1)

More than 30 years before Ronald Ross established the link between mosquitoes and malaria, Livingstone suggested their association: 'Myriads of mosquitoes showed, as probably they always do, the presence of malaria.' (Livingstone, 1865, 368). In 1854 Livingstone also observed the association between relapsing fever and the bite of the tampan (tick). Additionally, his experience in Africa led him to make connections between the environment and climate and diseases such as pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.

During his final years Livingstone was beset with health problems, but he refused to leave Africa. He died there in 1873. After his death his body was returned to Britain for burial in Westminster Abbey.

Inscription on David Livingstone's grave at Westminster Abbey
Inscription on David Livingstone's grave at Westminster Abbey
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

A shorter version of this biography is published in The Dictionary of medical biography, Helen Bynum and William F. Bynum (eds), 2007 by Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.

For further information on David Livingstone, see his Wikipedia entry and the article at the Dictionary of national biography [Subscription Required].

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