052: Dr Arthur Bennett and “Umckaloabo”, 1914-1915

The West African's testimony, The Times, 18 July 1914 page 3.
The West African’s testimony, The Times, 18 July 1914 page 3.

Tuberculosis killed one in eight Britons in the first years of the 20th century: more than one death in three in males aged 15 to 44, one half of females 15 to 24, and one quarter of females aged 25 to 44. Infection in urban areas was as high as 90% but around 1% developed the disease, then often called consumption. Highly infectious, tuberculous people were often ostracized by family and friends, and always stigmatized: tuberculosis was a major social problem. Charles Henry Stevens offered a cure, with a money-back guarantee, charging £2 12s 6d (then more than a week’s income), claiming he had found the cure in Umckaloabo and Chijitse plants from southern Africa. The British Medical Association, in the British Medical Journal 22 August 1908, expressed serious doubts and Stevens brought a charge of libel. The first trial, in October 1912, saw the jury fail to agree. In July 1914 Stevens again took the B.M.A. to court.

Stevens’ bank manager said that over £5,000 a year passed into his account. Another witness stated the mixture was not antiseptic (78% water, 11% alcohol, 7% gycerine etc), others said it had cured people, and a Captain J. H. Bailey of the Cape Mounted Police who had lived in Africa said he knew that Umckaloabo was taken by Africans “for chest trouble”. On 17 July a Dr A. H. Bennett, “who came from West Africa” testified that having heard the name Umckaloabo he phoned Stevens’ solicitors. He told the court he had practiced in Liberia and in South Africa, and on ships: presenting a list of vessels he had served on. Questioned by the B.M.A.’s lawyer after he produced a root of the plant (for it was the leaves that were claimed to hold the cure) he said “When it was plucked it had leaves on it”. As a document in his possession gave the name A. H. Bennett Macphee, he explained that Macphee was “a clan name”. He had just arrived from West Africa.

The case continued and the jury found that the B.M.A. had been justified to warn the public and Stevens was ordered to pay £2,000 for the costs of the two trials.

On 2 February 1915 Arthur Alfred Henry Bennett, aged 54, “described as a surgeon” was charged at Bow Street with “committing wilful and corrupt perjury”, for enquiries had revealed he had no medical qualifications. When arrested in Gravesend on 24 January he claimed to have been born in New South Wales in 1861, remarking “Perjury! It’s a nice charge”, and noted as being of no fixed abode. In mid-February 1915 it was decided that his case was to be heard at the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court, London). What happened is not yet traced.

Stevens was refused permission to bring a third case against the B.M.A. in 1915. Umckaloabo was attacked in parliament on 27 March 1936, but Gordon Home of the Committee of Investigation on Treatments of Tuberculosis told The Times that 500 people had stated it worked, and asked for an official investigation (The Times, letters, 4 April 1936). Charles Stevens died in 1942 and his widow inherited £140,525; the business continued for some years.

The identification of the tubercle bacillus by Robert Koch in 1882, the realisation it was spread through coughing, spitting and sneezing, and effective chemotherapy in the 1950s brought British deaths down from 15,000 in 1950 to 492 in 1985.

The value of Umckaloabo, the untrained Charles Stevens, and the curious intervention of the African “Dr” Bennett with his M.B. (Aberdeen) are curiosities that reveal aspects of British social history. The B.M.A. files on Stevens, now at the Wellcome Library, London (ref: SA/BMA/C.362-367) are summarised on line. Linda Bryder, Below the Magic Mountain: A Social History of Tuberculosis in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 1988) does not mention Stevens and his African cure. There are many sites that detail Umckaloabo, most in German as it is sold in Germany without a doctor’s prescription – but not for treating tuberculosis.

My thanks to Amanda Engineer.


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