William Robinson Clarke

‘Medic and his wife sailed the world to treat lepers’

1880- 1974

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Boarding at Port of Spain in Trinidad, Scottish-born medic Ernest Muir was returning to England on the Empire Windrush after devoting much of his career to the treatment of leprosy, most recently overseeing a leper colony on the Trinidadian island of Chacachacare. With him was his wife, Palestine-born Sophie, who helped him in his work and was a prominent figure in her own right.

Ernest was born in Grange, Banffshire, Scotland on June 17, 1880. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he began working as a medical missionary in Bengal in 1906. From 1920, he worked in Calcutta and travelled widely to advance the treatment of leprosy. He later trained doctors in treating the disease in Calcutta.

In 1935, he became the medical secretary of the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association. His work helped leprosy become regarded as a treatable condition and India was soon covered by a network of leprosy clinics.

After working at a leper colony in eastern Nigeria, Ernest became the superintendent of the Leprosarium at Chacachacare, a tiny island between Trinidad and Venezuela, for four years from 1940.

Ernest told a reporter that he had ‘never seen more sadness, suffering and yet more heroism and self-sacrifice’ than at Chacachacare. It had been a leper colony for 20 years and he had to refuse people’s requests to go home, explaining that by sacrificing their liberty they saved the next generation from infection.

In 1945, Ernest and Sophie arrived back in England and lived in Wembley, London, but it was not for long. In March 1948, they left Southampton, destined for Cuba to attend a congress on leprosy. Just over two months later they found themselves back in Trinidad, where they boarded the Windrush to return to England.

Sophie’s father was Pacradooni Kaloold Vartan who founded a hospital in Nazareth, where she was born in 1878, the youngest of three children. Her mother was Mary Stewart from Perth, Scotland, who became Mrs Vartan following her marriage in Edinburgh in 1867.

Sophie and Ernest had four children. In 1936, Sophie was reported as addressing the West Finchley branch of the British Women’s Temperance Society in London about the evils of drink, saying that in Palestine, consumption of alcohol had increased as a result of British influence. In the same year, she and Ernest travelled to New York to give a lecture tour on leprosy.

In 1953, Ernest travelled alone to Bombay and in August 1962 went to Brazil. The passenger list showed him as a widower, Sophie having died in Surrey the previous year. Ernest died aged 94 in Surrey on November 1, 1974.

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