Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
William Sidney Gilchrist

Doctor "Sid" Gilchrist, M.B.E., M.D., C.M., D.P.H., LL.D., D.D.
( The text below was borrowed from an original text of his
Dalhousie University Alumni biography at: )

Sid with "Frankie", Frances Harriet KillamDr. William Sidney Gilchrist '27, who spent 38 years as a medical missionary in Africa, died with his wife and daughter on June 14, 1970, in an automobile accident near Red Deer, Alberta. In recognition of Dr. Gilchrist's achievements as a missionary, a humanitarian, and a specialist in public health and tropical medicine, the Medical Alumni Association at its annual dinner on November 25, 1970, named him posthumously Alumnus of the Year. The Association also presented a cheque for $1000 to the Angola Student Fund, a scholarship fund established in Dr. Gilchrist's memory by his five sons. The fund will be used to provide medical education for African students.

Three days after Dr. Sidney Gilchrist's death, the following sentences appeared in a story on the editorial page of the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Last Sunday, on a lonely highway in Alberta, a car did what disease and danger never could. It crossed a median and killed Dr. Gilchrist, his wife and his daughter. He was one of the great missionaries. A man who knew better than anyone that the missionary is to serve without counting the cost, but is not to impose his culture, his politics, his prejudice. He did not go because he felt our way was better than theirs. And all his life he nurtured the aspiration among Africans that some day their nations would be their own. Angola was his home. After war broke out in 1961, he refused to leave the country, even for a holiday, fearing that if he did, the Portuguese would not allow him back... Sidney Gilchrist made his life count for good. Among Canadian churchmen, he was an aristocrat."

These sentiments were echoed by the Reverend Roy Webster, Seretary of the Board of World Missions of the United Church of Canada. "As people looked back on Gilchrist's life of service," he said, "they remembered his energy and commmitment - how he delivered babies at midnight, performed operations by flashlight, never too tired for kindness and compassion, training and trusting scores of African health workers, caring for the bodies and souls and the freedom of people in dozens of villages."

Sidney Gilchrist was born in Pictou on February 9, 1901, the youngest of five children. His ancestry was Scottish and Presbyterian, and, under the influence of his family, his church leaders and his teachers at Pictou Academy, he resolved early in life to pursue a career of service to God and his fellow man. In 1919, the year of his graduation from Pictou Academy, he was selected by the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church to work in a mission at Luseland, Saskatchewan. In 1920, after a year in Luseland, he returned to the Maritimes and entered Dalhousie. Early in his university career, he planned to enter the ministry, and spent several summer vacations as a student minister in Taymouth, New Brunswick. During his second year at Dalhousie, however, he changed his mind and entered the medical course. Although he was deeply dedicated to the church, Sidney Gilchrist was anything but a pious recluse. The Dalhousie yearbook for 1927 states that he "distinguished himself as a debater, as a member of the Students' Council, in S.C.A. activities, as a contributor to the 'Gazette', winning thereby a literary 'D', and as class president for two years." He served on the staff of the Children's Hospital during his final year of medical school.

One of Dr. Gilchrist's Dalhousie classmates, the Reverand Dr. Frank E. Archibald of Sackville, New Brunswick, recalls that the future medical missionary was the only member of the Dalhousie debating team who could match wits with a team of visiting debaters from Oxford University. Dr. Archibald is the author of Salute to Sid: The Story of Dr. Sidney Gilchrist, published last year by the Lancelot Press. The book reveals much about Sidney Gilchrist's sense of humour, including his frequent comments on the edibility of the food served at the Pine Hill residence. The Reverend Dr. Archibald also suggests that Gilchrist's habit of dropping water-filled bags on the heads of "sober-sided, ultra-pious" students of theology probably contributed to his being asked to find lodgings elsewhere.

Two years before he completed his medical studies, Sidney Gilchrist married Frances Harriet Killam of Halifax. The couple had nine children, three of whom died in infancy and are buried in Africa. Their daughter Betty, a missionary like her parents, died with them last summer. Five sons survive. Thomas is a minister of Metropolitan United Church, Edmonton; David is a minister at Trinity Church , Calgary; Kenneth is a teacher in Edmonton; Ian is a doctor in the Cameroons, Africa, and Rae is an agriculturalist with the Department of Agriculture in Ottawa.

Frances Gilchrist shared her husband's desire for a life of service, and when he completed his medical studies they volunteered to go abroad as medical missionaries. In 1928 they were appointed to Angola by the Board of Overseas Missions of the United Church of Canada. Sidney Gilchrist has stated his reasons for this decision in unequivocal terms in his book Angola Awake, published by the Ryerson Press: "FIRST: Because in the home church and town in which I had the good fortune to be brought up, I was taught that it is better to give than to receive. (Only years later did I discover that one always receives far more than one gives.) SECOND: In Dalhousie University, certain good men and women helped me to retain my early views of life's real values. THIRD: Respecting various religions for the wisdom, altruism and questing for the Good which characterize them, I have remained convinced that in the words, example and spirit of Christ mankind has been given something supremely worthy and precious. FOURTH: Because, uninterested in making money or seeking fame, my wife and I resolved to serve our fellow men where the need seemed greatest. Nobody - no society, no organization - offered to equip u s, send us out and support us where we worked, except the Christian Church."

Before proceeding to the vast Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa, the Gilchrists spent a year in Portugal, studying both Portuguese and the African languages spoken in Angola. During this time Dr. Gilchrist earned a Diploma in Tropical Medicine at the University of Lisbon. The Gilchrists arrived in Angola in 1930 and were immediately faced with a seemingly impossible amount of work. In a part of the world where there was one doctor for every 100,000 people, where the average life expectancy was 30 years, and where 50 per cent of infants died during the first year of life, Dr. Gilchrist was hard pressed to find time to eat and sleep. In one letter written during the 1930s, he estimated that often he tried to accomplish in a day an amount of work that would take a week in a well-equipped clinic. A major health problem in Angola during the 1930s and the 1940s was leprosy. Dr. Gilchrist realized that there were far too few doctors in Angola to effectively combat this disease, so he concentrated his eff orts on training native medical assistants who could operate local clinics.

The Gilchrists were stationed at Camundongo, Angola, from 1930 to 1940, a term interrupted by a two-year furlough in 1935 and 1936. Dr. Gilchrist established a leprosy clinic in Camundongo, and he spent a great deal of time walking or bicycling to out-patient clinics and to native villages to treat sufferers who were unable or unwilling to visit the clinics. He was so successful in training native assistants that he was able to leave the clinic in their hands during his furlough. It was at Camundongo that Dr. Gilchrist experienced his first narrow escape from death in Africa. He had a ruptured appendix, and while he was in this condition his wife drove him for miles over a rough and dusty road to the nearest surgeon.

Dr. Gilchrist and his family were in Canada on their second furlough in 1940. When World War II began, he obtained a leave of absence from the Mission Board, enlisted in the R.C.A.M.C. , and was attached to the North Nova Scotia Regiment. He remained with the Regiment, first in Nova Scotia and then in England, until 1943, when he was transferred to a field ambulance section and sent to North Africa. In the Mediterranean theatre, first in North Africa and then in Italy, Dr. Gilchrist was called on both to treat wounded troops in the front lines and to combat disease. He performed especially valuable service in helping to reduce the rate of malaria and dysentery among allied troops in Italy. Dr. Gilchrist was discharged with the rank of Major in May, 1945. Two months later, in recognition of his wartime service, he was make a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Dr. Gilchrist was anxious to return to Africa when the war ended, but he remained in North America until 1947. He spent this time visiting numerous public health clinics in Canada and leprosy treatment centers in the southern United States. He also found time to earn a Diploma in Public Health at the University of Toronto: most of his medical career was spent in places far removed from centres of medical education and research, so he took every opportunity to study advances in the treatment of tropical diseases. "From the standpoint of theory and practical experience, Dr. Gilchrist is now one of the world's authorities on leprosy," stated the Dalhousie Alumni News in 1947.

In 1947, the Gilchrists returned to Angola, this time to Dondi. Here were medical facilities far more complete than those at Camundongo; and, in addition to a well-equipped hospital, there were two schools. But the shortage of doctors at Dondi was just as acute as it had been at Camundongo. Dr. Gilchrist was faced with the task of running the hospital, the leper clinics, the village sanitation programs and the medical assistants' training program by himself. He attacked the problem with the same energy he had exerted at Camundongo, and by the time he left Dondi, in 1956, he had established a series of public-health clinics staffed by native assistants. He had come to feel that preventive medicine is the only solution to health problems in underdeveloped countries, where a large percentage of the population suffers from diseases caused by malnutrition and similar factors.

Dr. Gilchrist's nect mission station was at Bailundo, but first came a year's leave, spent in the Maritimes. The highlight of this year came on January 15, 1957, when Mount Allison University held a special convocation to award Dr. Gilchrist the honourary degree of Doctor of Laws. The Reverend Dr. Fraser Munro, President of the Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada, read the citation: "He was appointed... as a medical missionary in Angola, West Africa, where he has given outstanding service, specializing in work among lepers and in public health work...

His distinguished public service in Angola has been recognized by the government of Portugal." After the ceremony, Dr. Gilchrist pleaded for increased support for public-health programs in underdeveloped countries, noting that "one half of what Canadians spend harmfully on themselves would abolish six of the world's major diseases."

Dr. Gilchrist looked forward to working at Bailundo, because there he was to head a mission which would concentrate on preventitive medicine. Within two years of his arrival, a new health-care centre and a maternity centre had been built. Fuirther, he established an extensive system that served more than seventy villages with tuberculosis clinics, malaria surveys, maternity conferences, and training courses for midwives and medical assistants. As always, the emphasis was on prevention. Dr. Gilchrist distributed an enoormous amount of health-care literature.

By the early 1960s, the Gilchrists had come to consider Angola their home. Even though a Nova Scotia flag flew over the door of Dr. Gilchrist's office, he felt that, spiritually, he belonged to Africa. His writings show a deep love for all things African. He was a student of the customs and languages of many African peoples, and he developed a deep appreciation for the African landscape and all the creatures that lived on it.

These sentences appear in Angola Awake: "Africa, to me, means the coo of a dove in the orange grove at the peep of dawn, followed by a swelling chorus of three other kinds of doves, calling and answering, each in his or her own nostalgic tune.

"Africa means a gentle morning breeze caressing my face while my head is still on the pillow, and filling my nostrils with a blend, never to be forgotten, of exotic and delectable aromas.

"Africa means to me a log seat in a thatch-roofed and mud-floored church cum school, my ears and soul filled with the sweetest harmony that human vo8ices can produce anywhere outside of Heaven."

Bailundo, however, was to be the Gilchrists' last post in Angola. The country was caught up in the revolt of Africans against the European colonial powers. In 1961, war broke out in northern Angola between Portuguese troops and Angolan guerillas. From that time, Portuguese officials made life increasingly difficult for any foreign missionaries disposed to side with the native population. Dr. Gilchrist's account of the situation he and his wife faced from 1961 until they left Angola in 1966 is told in Angola Awake . The book condemns colonialism in general and the Portuguese rule in Angola in particular. On nearly every page one can sense the agonizing decision that faced the Gilchrists: they could keep silent about the injustices they saw all around them, or they could speak out and be expelled from the country, leaving their villagers without a doctor. Angola Awake is an angry book. "Lots of people were surprised when they read it," said the Reverend Thomas Gilchrist. "They said the tone was very different from that of the old Sid. But after all he had seen, he had to vent his spleen at least once."

Dr. and Mrs. Gilchrist remained in Angola, without home leave, from 1957 to 1966. They correctly surmised that the Portuguese government would not permit them to return if they left the country on furlough. Their last years in Angola were spent under tremendous pressure form the Portuguese, who, according to Dr. Gilchrist, were taking revenge on the entire native population for the military gains scored by the rebel guerillas. Angolans who were educated at mission schools or who worked for the mission health-care clinics were special targets. Missionaries thought to be sympathetic to Africans were required to obtain special permission for even short trips. For Africans, the harassment was much more severe. Army troops raided school dormitories, and suspects were jailed, beaten, and sometimes murdered. "Twelve of my intimate African friends were tortured to death or committed suicide to cheat their sadistic captors when human flesh and spirit could stand no more," Dr. Gilchrist wrote in Angola Awake.

By 1966, the Gilchrists had decided that to remain in Angola would endager their own lives and the lives of their African friends. Accordingly, in February, 1966, after several long interrogations by Portuguese officials, they left Angola for Kitwe, in the neighboring country of Zambia, where their son, Thomas, was serving as a United Church missionary. After a visit of several months with their son and his family, and when the Gilchrists were preparing to return to Canada, Dr. Gilchrist suffered a severe heart attack. It was not until June, 1966, that the Gilchrists were able to leave Zambia and return to Canada. In December, 1966, Dr. Gilchrist suffered a second heart attack, while on a visit to four Angola students at the University of Rochester, New York. Doctors feared that he would not survive, and all five sons were summoned from across Canada to their father's bedside. But by February, 1967, Dr. Gilchrist was out of hospital and making plans to return to Africa, regardless of doctor's orders. In May, 1967, he received a second honorary degree, Doctor of Divinity, from Pine Hill Divinity Hall, and in June he attended the 20th reunion of Dalhousie's medical class of 1927.

The Gilchrists hoped to return to Zambia, but that plan was thwarted when the Zambian government took over the administration of the country's mission hospitals. As soon as they learned this, they applied to the Board of World Missions for permission to go to the Congo, and started to study French. March 1968 found them in Kimpese, in the Congo. Dr. Gilchrist immediately laid plans for the improvement of public-health care at the Ecumenical Protestant Medical Centre in Lower Congo. One major area of concern there was tuberculosis; another was relief work for refugees who had fled the Portuguese army in Angola. The Gilchrists were also worried abot the safety of their daughter Betty, who by 1968 had spent ten years without furlough in Angola. But in February, 1969, Betty was able to leave Angola, and the Gilchrists were reunited. Before leaving Africa for the last time, they attended a memorial service for a close friend, the Reverend Jesse Chipenda, who had preached at the dedication of the hospital in Bailundo, and who had since died in a Portuguese prison camp.

The Gilchrists' final departure from Africa was in January, 1970. Sidney Gilchrist was not ready to retire, however. Although he was 69 years old and in poor health, he refused to abandon his life's work. He decided to start a scholarship fund for African students, and looked for a job which would allow him to make a greater financial contribution than he would be able to make with only his missionary's pension. He applied for certification to practise medicine in British Columbia and Ontario, and while waiting for a decision worked for a time as a resource person at the United Church's Continuing Education Centre in Naramata, British Columbia. He also accepted speaking engagements, to try to generate support for the scholarship fund. He was traveling to Edmonton for such an engagement when the fatal accident occurred.

Sidney Gilchrist's desire to help educate African students in medicine was realized after his death. The Reverend Thomas Gilchrist, who attended the Medical Alumni Association's dinner to accept the Alumnus of the Year Award in his father's memory, told of the fund's establishment: " Within an hour after my father's burial, we five sons met in the basement of David's church in Calgary and founded the Angola Student Fund. Its main purpose is to provide medical education for African students. It is not limited to medical students, but they have priority. Nor is it limited to members of the United Church of Canada."

The Angola Student Fund, which has grown to more than $13,000, will be administered by the Board of World Missions of the United Church until a permanent committee to administer it is established.

Had Sidney Gilchrist's life not been cut so short by an accident, it is likely that he would still be pushing himself to the limit of his endurance in the service of the causes he thought worth fighting for. He died before learning that he had been granted a license to practise medicine in Ontario.

Dr. Gilchrist's last message to his African co-workers was found in the wreckage of his car. On a stencil prepared for reproduction and mailing was a letter in the Umbundu language, urging the Angolan churches and clinics to carry on regardless of the hardships that might be encountered.

Our thanks to Steve Gilchrist, his grandson, for letting us know about this great man.

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus