Dr. Sir Albert Cook, Founder of Mengo Hospital and father of modern medicine in Uganda
In 1875, British explorer Henry Morton Stanley visited Kabaka Mutesa I of Buganda who declared to his visitor his desire to have missionaries in his kingdom.
In the popular and now classic letter, which the explorer wrote back to the UK, published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Stanley wrote: “…It is not a mere preacher that is wanted here. It is a practical Christian tutor, who can teach people how to become Christians, cure their diseases…” However, writes W. R. Billington (one of Dr. Albert Cook”s biographers), it was another 20 years before the man, who could meet the double need Stanley spoke of could be found, in the form of Dr. Albert Cook. Sir Albert Cook arrived in Uganda in 1896 and went on to build the first hospital in the country and train the fi rst Ugandan medical practitioners. Although there were other doctors that had travelled to Uganda, they were only reserved for the colonialists. Therefore, Cook was the fi rst colonial doctor to treat natives.
Albert Ruskin Cook was born on March 7, 1870, in Hampstead, London, to a general medical practitioner and his wife the daughter of a clergyman. Like his other three siblings he was intelligent at school and he loved books. He studied on scholarships at St. Paul’s College and later Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1891. In 1895, he graduated with yet another degree in medicine from St. Bartholomew’s hospital.
Moving to Uganda
While at Cambridge, Albert reportedly became interested in missionary work. In 1896, when the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sought missionaries to come to Uganda, he volunteered. They took a journey by sea, landing at Mombasa after two months. After a two-month rest at Mombasa, with 500 porters mobilised for the caravan, he started the over- 1,360-mile trek to Kampala arriving after three months. Katharine Timpson, one of the travellers, and Cook got married in 1900.
Early practice in Uganda According to the writings of Hamu Mukasa, one of the servants at the royal courts, when Dr. Cook arrived, the doctor straight away set to work treating the natives just three days after setting foot in Kampala on February 26, 1897.
He conducted his fi rst clinic under a tree. However, despite the diffi cult working environment, Cook is said to have found Uganda a scholarly medical doctor’s paradise. He was seeing 50 to 60 patients a day and using a camp bed as an operating table. In his own record, Cook wrote of his fi rst days that “the effects of chloroform anaesthesia, with its painless operation and quick recovery, seemed magical to Ugandans - a patient blind from corneal scarring and made to see again by a simple optical iridectomy called me God.”
The doctor not only administered at Mengo, but he was also travelling throughout the newlydeclared Uganda Protectorate. He was only one of two doctors in British East Africa, and the only one in the protectorate as the other was at Nairobi. So Cook would travel to treat people in Toro, Ankole, Bunyoro, Busoga and even South Sudan where he once went as the medical attaché of a military expedition to quell a riot.
Setting up Mengo Hospital
Three months after his arrival, Cook set up his hospital in a grass-thatched, reed-walled structure, with 12 wooden beds and straw for mattresses. He named it Mengo Hospital after the Kabaka’s royal enclosure nearby, although today it is also known as Namirembe Hospital. But as fate would have it, Cook’s first hospital structure was burnt down by lightening in 1902.
But he immediately built an even larger one with double number of beds. Two years later, he expanded the facility to 40 beds. In 1899 he was joined by his elder brother, John Howard Cook, also a medical doctor. The two worked jointly until 1920 when Howard returned to England for family reasons. Cook would work as a physician, surgeon, pathologist, dentist and obstetrician/gynecologist. According to Billington, Cook’s kind ways made him a darling to the natives.
At Mengo Hospital, it is evident that from his fi rst day, Cook kept careful records and the entire series from 1897 until the last day of practice is kept in the library named after him at the Makerere University Medical School. Together with his brother they became known all over the world as “the consultants of East Africa. The Cook brothers were the fi rst to describe sleeping sickness in East Africa. The Royal Society of the UK sent out a commission to investigate the outbreak, and the discovery of the causative trypanosome soon followed.”
Albert also proved to the world that heavy hookworm infestation could cause severe anaemia and in 1904 recorded the presence of relapsing fever in Uganda. On a month-long leave to London in 1901, Cook published a thesis on Malaria Fever as met within the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa and for it, gained his master’s degree.
Building local capacity When he noticed the need to train locals in medical practice, he took them on as medical assistants. In his lifetime he saw the venereal disease centre he had established at Mulago become a fully-fl edged hospital with a medical school, and also his wife saw the midwife training centre she had established become a full maternity school. By the time he retired in 1934, a long string of awards and honours had come Cook’s way, among them an Order of the British Empire (OBE), an Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG), a King Leopold Medal, a Silver Medal of the Royal African Society, top honours of the British Medical Association and Knighthood.
From the time they arrived in 1897, Albert Cook and his wife lived in Uganda the rest of their lives. Lady Katherine Cook died and was buried in the country in 1938, while Sir Albert Cook died in 1951 and was also buried in Uganda.
But today their place as the patrons of modern medicine in the country is well-preserved. Cook seeing himself throughout his tenure as a missionary, who offered medical services just to complement spiritual services, left the hospital to belong to the CMS. But in 1958 the CMS handed over the hospital to an independent and autonomous Board of Governors and Registered Trustees. Today, the Albert Cook Hospital is an urban community hospital with all the amenities of a modern hospital in sub-Saharan Africa. It houses the Ernest Cook Radiology Department, named after Ernest Cook, the nephew to Albert Cook, who brought the fi rst X-Ray machine to East Africa in 1907 and installed it at Mengo Hospital. The different wings of the hospital are all named after the Cook family. The later Kabaka, Daudi Chwa, was born under Dr. Albert Cook’s watchful eye at Mengo hospital.