When Aberdeen graduate Christopher James Davis succumbed to smallpox in 1870 at the age of just 28, the Lancet ran an obituary titled ‘Le Bon Docteur Noir’ (The Good Black Doctor) paying tribute to his 'accomplished noble work’ which had earned the gratitude of hundreds who owe their lives to his self-sacrifice.
Davis had spent his final years thousands of miles from his birthplace of Barbados using the medical degree which he obtained from the University of Aberdeen to tend to the poor in the Sedan region of France during the Franco-Prussian War.
Such was his reputation that his funeral was attended by French, Germans, English and the Prussian Military and the gates of Sedan were thrown open while the Mayor delivered an ‘oraisen funebre’ in his honour.
When Henry Bleby set down his experiences teaching a young Davis and the accomplishments of his later life, he wrote that “many have read what has been published concerning the piety and heroism of the ‘good black doctor’ without knowing the rock from whence he was hewn, the hole of the pit from whence he was digged”.
Davis was born in St Philip, Barbados in 1840 as the eldest of several children within a family living out of their own modest industry growing sugar-canes and aloe and keeping cattle.
According to Bleby, he received instruction at the Mission School where he excelled and was recommended for a place at the Mico Institution in Antigua which he began in early 1858. Board, lodgings, washing, medical attendance and books for study, were all supplied to him by the Institution.
It is said that he soon outstripped all other students in his attainments and was permitted to continue his studies for a third year.
Davis then returned to Barbados where he took charge of a school at Dalkeith in the suburbs of Bridgetown where he proved himself to be ‘a most able teacher – second to none on the island’.
An Aberdeen student
By 1866 he had left Barbados to travel to England, most likely under the auspices of the Christian movement, The Plymouth Brethren.
He trained as a doctor at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, receiving the Examiner’s Prize in Anatomy from the hospital, and going on to be awarded a scholarship in Anatomy, Physiology, Botany and Chemistry in 1867. He won further prizes in clinical medicine, botany and zoology.
In the summer of 1869, after his time in London, Davis enrolled at the University of Aberdeen as a medical student. He took classes in practical anatomy, surgery and midwifery.
During this time he also devoted himself to working as an evangelist preacher addressing large congregations in London, Aberdeen and many other places.
The Aberdeen Free Press described him as “a blithe handsome-looking man, with exceedingly frank and affable manners. He possessed considerable ability, and graduated at the University here in the spring of the present year. He took a very earnest and active interest in the welfare of the poor and degraded classes, during the time of his residence here as a medical student; and we know from thoroughly impartial testimony, was the means of doing a great deal of good. He did all of this without in the slightest manner obtruding himself upon the notice of the public; and many a good deed , which deserved to be proclaimed, was kept secret at his own desire”.
Answering the call to ease suffering
As news of the widespread suffering caused by the Franco-Prussian War, coupled with famine and fever, spread across the Channel it awakened sympathy in many people in England.
In 1870 when the now Dr Davis read reports of the suffering of the wounded of Sedan and of the fever-stricken peasantry in eastern France, he was quick to offer his services, perhaps inspired by the example of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole during the Crimean War a decade earlier.
With the aid of personal friends, he took charge of an ambulance crowded with Bavarians and French, many suffering from dysentery and fever.
He found it in a filthy state and equipped only with a bottle of brandy and two lemons and Bleby describes how ‘with untiring energy succeeded in putting it in perfect order’.
Dr Davis also formed soup kitchens at Port Mangis and Balan in a bid to relieve the hunger of the region’s peasantry.
Bleby reports how, when on one occasion there was insufficient soup for all the applicants, Davis ‘took the watch out of his pocket which he had gained as a prize at College; giving that to be sold, rather than any of the starving people should go away without relief’.
A funeral honour from all sides
After returning briefly to England to seek further funds for his work, he travelled again to France where he immediately visited the Small-pox hospital in Sedan and is thought to have contracted the disease.
Dr Davis died aged 28 on November 27, 1870. The following month The Lancet carried an obituary which described how Dr Davis ‘devoted himself with remarkable skill and energy to the treatment of large numbers of sick and wounded, and the establishment of soup kitchens at Balan and Pont Mangy, which have given food and life to hundreds of starving peasants… For years to come… pilgrimages will be made to the quiet nook at Fond de Givonne, where lie the remains of le bon docteur noir’.
Augustine Goulden, one of three sisters who worked alongside him in France, wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1870, ‘you cannot picture to yourself the sunshine that lighted up sick, miserable faces when he appeared among his patients; the weakest would make an effort to catch a hand or a friendly nod….He was considerate to everybody except himself.’
She also describes how he was ‘more honoured in his burial than any citizen of the town’. The German Commandant allowed the gates to be opened, though this had never been done even for a German officer’s funeral, while the Mayor, Monsr Philipoteau delivered an ‘oraisen funebre’ in his honour.
His funeral was attended by the many French and Prussians who were grateful for the help that he had given them and Dr Davis was buried in Fond de Givonne, France.
*with thanks for information provided by Barbados Museum & Historical Society