Chapter 27 - A Pioneer Woman Doctor

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz was one of the first women in Ceylon who had studied at the Medical College in Colombo that had been established in 1870.

Doleraine Brohier in her book “Dr Alice de Boer and some pioneer Burgher women doctors" says quote: “In 1892 the Ceylon Medical College in Colombo opened its doors to women and two young women entered its portals, they paved the way for future generations of female medical professionals. For as the Ceylon Examiner on May 1892 reported: “The Medical College opens its summer session today. Two young ladies, Misses Keyt and Davidson – will be admitted as students for the first time in the history of the College”. What is more “in anticipation of the admission of female students” the Government authorized “ a separate Dissecting Room for females and separate tutors and a reading room (Ceylon Administrative Reports 1891 A15). The fact that they decided to undertake this revolutionary mission was one element that Miss Davidson and Miss Keyt had in common. But they were united also by another strand – they both belonged to the same community, the same community that was to produce the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Sri Lanka, Alice de Boer. The Burgher community was in fact distinguished by the number of women who succeeded in becoming professionals in the field of medicine, Misses Henrietta Keyt, Evelyn Davidson, Winifred Nell, Claribel Van Dort, Rachel Christoffelsz, Ursula Van Rooyen, Sylvia Ebert and others.

Medical Students in April 1905, The women from left to right are Sylvia Ebert, Claribel Van Dort, Helen Kiddle and Rachel Christoffelsz.

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz born the 29th September 1885, was amongst the early women students from a notable Burgher family. Her father W.S.Christoffelsz was Office Assistant to the Colonial Secretary and was referred to by the Governor, Sir Henry Blake as “ a valuable public officer.” In 1906 in recognition of 40 years service in government service, he was awarded an Imperial Service Order. Rachel Christoffelsz mother was Mary Anne Fretz, great grand daughter of Dietrich Thomas Fretz, Commander of the Galle Fort, who surrendered the Galle Fort to Captain Lachlan Macquarie the future Governor of New South Wales, Australia in 1796 and later became good friends with him, and Mrs fretz (nee Vrielandt) daughter of Gerard Joan Vrielandt Governor of Ceylon under the Dutch India Company.

After going to Mina Johnson’s Private School, Rachel Christoffelsz joined Ladies College, Colombo in 1900 and gained admission to Medical College on a government scholarship in 1904. Her elder brother Dr Herman Christoffelsz was a doctor (and later a Dentist) and may have inspired her to study medicine.

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz (centre) with other doctors, nurses and attendants, July 1911 at Lady Havelock Hospital

The early women medical students had to courageously face many problems in the Medical College – one of the leading male dominated institutions in colonial society. The pioneers had to assert the right of women to medical education, and their right to be treated as equals in society. In the reminiscences of the first Sinhala doctor Verona Wirasekera who was the only female student in her batch, when Rachel Christoffelsz joined in the middle of the first year, she was relieved and the two became “inseparable companions”. She states that “Rachel and I used to work with a Textbook of Anatomy working our way from part to part. In the lecture room itself there was a certain amount of noise and unrest, till the Lecturer came in but nothing really frightening or annoying. Paper balls and gram seeds used to fly around, especially round the girls’ benches, but all this was merely to excite and not meant to hit them. Rudeness was unknown. The boys were always polite and a little formal, as in those times, but friendly and extremely helpful.

Christoffelsz and Wirasekera were also subject to teasing and flirtatious comments. In an interview (in later years) the latter recalled their admirers. “There were many of them and it was not unsual to find little verses written out and tucked away in our books when we were not around. Or sometimes even hear some bold spirit sing a couplet or recite out loud as we passed by,

“Veronica sweet as the morning air,
Do not leave me in despair”

“Rachel Chris, dear charming Miss,
Your lips to kiss, t’will be a bliss”.

On completing her studies in 1909, Rachel Christoffelsz worked for many years in the Municipal Medical Service. She was sent for three months training on child welfare to Madras and was then appointed (in 1925) to be Assistant Medical Officer of Health of the Public Health Department in charge of the Child Welfare Branch.

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz in her 1924 Berliet car
from France, sent by her brother Moritz Christoffelsz

She also had some private patients among the Muslim community, especially wealthy families such as the Abdul Gaffoors and Macan Macars. Her work in the Municipality among the urban poor included the training of Health Visitors and the supervision of municipal midwives. The Health Visitors examined poor children, advised mothers on the feeding of infants and on the hygiene and cleanliness of the house.

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz also held ante-natal clinics at four Municipal dispensaries and supervised the supply of milk to needy children.

In her annual report in 1925 she claimed a reduction in infant mortality from the previous year and an improvement in “the general health and condition of slum babies” (Ceylon Sessional Papers 1926), Municipality of Colombo: 81-3).

More progress was recorded in the next year’s report, but she retired in 1927 after her marriage to A.P.Rowlands, a pioneer in automobile engineering, whom she first met when he taught her to drive a car; he became a Director of a successful enterprise, Rowlands Garages, from until 1922 until he retired in 1943".

On 28th December 1925, Arthur Percival Rowlands married Doctor.Rachel Sperling Christoffelsz, the daughter of William Christoffelsz and Mary Fretz, in St Michael’s and All Angel’s Church, Colombo.

Dr Rachel Christoffelsz in 1926

The family lived in Cinnamon Gardens and Rachel gave birth to a baby girl, Christobel Rachel Rowlands on 29th June 1928 and though Rachel lived until the age of 90, she never practiced again”.

The Fergusons’ Directory of 1927, 1928 and 1929 shows the ‘Rowlands’ residents of Ceylon being:-

A.P.Rowlands – Manager and Co-Proprietor, Rowlands Garage Motor Engineers, Turret Road, Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo.

E.Rowlands –Assistant Superintendent Rusiyagama Mahawela.
W.O.Rowlands – Forester, Kegalla.

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