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Remembering Cathy Peat: 1920s medical missionary to Livingstonia in Malawi

Lynne Haultain

Lynne Haultain

My grandmother Cathy Peat was an indomitable woman, writes Lynne Haultain. Graduating in medicine in the mid-1920s in Aberdeen, Scotland, she found herself within a few years on a mission to deepest darkest Africa – literally.

The resonance is almost comic. Dr Peat’s first posting as a medical missionary was to Livingstonia – named after the great man himself – in northern Nyasaland, a tiny slip of a country at the bottom of the chain of the Nile lakes in central Africa, now known by its post-independence name, Malawi.

Like Dr Livingstone, Dr Peat was driven by a profound sense of social justice, stoked by her faith and Fabian thinking. She saw no barrier in her gender, and nor did the Church of Scotland, happy to send medical women to far-flung colonial outposts to spread the word.

I knew all this as a child and had visions of my grandmother hacking her way through jungle in a pith helmet and long cream skirt to establish leper colonies and tend to malarial Africans. My images were borne of Kipling and Ladybird books about explorers, but in this case they were not far from the truth.

Perhaps because of the strength of that image and the extraordinary lives she and her family led, I have always had an intense pride in the matrilineal inheritance, and last summer it was time to show my own daughter some of that legacy.

Against all odds, Cathy found her true love in Nyasaland. She had moved south to Mulanje, in the lee of one of the great massif plateaus of the Rift Valley, and become the mission doctor. The area was already well planted with tea by the early 1930s and there were a number of expat families in the neighbourhood. Amongst them was a quiet, industrious Scotsman, Lewis Stewart, who had an estate called Eldorado. He was her perfect foil – reserved where she was voluble, calm to her feistiness, with the same capacity for very hard work.

So the medical missionary and the tea planter were married in the Mulanje parish church. Hundreds came from all over the district for the celebration, and the singing and chanting continued well into the night.

Cathy was required to resign her post with the Church of Scotland when she married, so she promptly set up a clinic on Eldorado, and continued to practise medicine there for the next 40 years …

• Full story at the Sydney Morning Herald.
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