Black History Month - James Africanus Beale Horton

As a specialist Hospice, St Oswald’s Hospice cares for patients who need higher levels of care and have more complex conditions. The children and young adults who come to us for short breaks and respite care often have very rare conditions. Our specialist nurses, doctors and other care staff work alongside hospital staff to make sure that we can support them to make the most of life, no matter how long that life is. Our new Research Centre is ensuring that we learn more about our work and share it with others. This week’s featured person for Black History Month is a doctor who made important contributions to medicine including identifying symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease long before it was discovered as a disease.

James “Africanus” Beale Horton was born near Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1835. He was originally expected to become a clergyman but he won a British War Office scholarship to come to the UK to study medicine. He studied at King’s College London and Edinburgh University. When he was a student he took the name Africanus to reflect his pride in his native continent. Horton graduated in 1859 with the thesis “On the medical topography of the west coast of Africa including sketches of its botany”. After graduating, Horton received a commission as an officer in the British Army and was made Staff Assistant Surgeon, making him one of the earliest African officers. Throughout his army career, Horton was posted to various parts of the British empire including Ghana, Lagos, the Gambia and Sierra Leone.

Horton’s first two publications, The Political Economy of British West Africa: with the Requirements of Several Colonies and Settlements (1865) and West African Countries and Peoples (1868), fought against the views of some European anthropologists who believed that Africans were physically and intellectually inferior. He was the first modern African political thinker to campaign openly for self-government (and end to colonialisation) for West African countries. He also supported the idea of an elected Monarch who would be elected by the people.

Horton felt that it was important that West Africa had its own medical school and university and campaigned for one to be established. In 1861, he wrote to the British War Office stating the need for a tropical medical school in West Africa.

In 1874, Horton published “The Diseases of Tropical Climates and Their Treatment”. In it he describes some of the clinical symptoms of Sickle Cell Disease, thirty-six years before the recorded discovery of the disease in 1910.

Africanus Horton retired from the British Army in 1880 and returned to Freetown and started the Commercial Bank of West Africa. However, he continued to campaign for self-government and for improvements in education in West Africa. His business allowed him to set up scholarships and he continued to call for the establishment of a medical school in the region.

Africanus Horton died in Freetown, Sierra Leone, aged 48, in 1883. His medical contributions were important the development of a better understanding of conditions including Sickle Cell Disease.

Find out more information about our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion work at the Hospice, please click here.

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