Petronella van Heerden

Steve Reed sent a picture of old American cars in Aussie .. I wrote:

These lovely old motorised wrecks remind me of Swinburne character Abe Sparks’ Rolls Royce bakkie. And that reminds me of Nell van Heerden.

Dr Anna Petronella van Heerden, born 1887 in Bethlehem. She studied at the University of Amsterdam from 1908 to 1915 where she completed her medical degree. Van Heerden served as an intern at the Volkshuishospitaal in Bloemfontein in 1916 and had her own practice in Harrismith from 1917. She specialised in gynaecology in London from 1921 before returning to Amsterdam to complete her PhD in 1923. She moved to Cape Town where she practiced as a gynaecologist. She retired from her practice in 1942 to go farming in Harrismith.

Apparently she bought the Roller in England, toured the continent in it, then shipped it back to Kaapstad where she ran her specialist practice. This part about the car is according to my 96 year-old Dad.

She gave up practicing medicine and came to Harrismith to farm cattle and was legendary among the boere here.







Before that, she went digging:

Always dressed in khaki trousers, khaki shirt, sturdy shoes and hoed, she would answer my gran Annie’s, How are you, Nell? query with ‘Fair to bloody’ as she filled up her bakkie with Caltex fuel at Annie’s Central Service Station. She had a live-in girlfriend Freddie Heseltine, who sometimes had to move out to the cottage when Nell had city girlfriends over for wild parties on her farm Grootfontein, behind the mountain. So we were told!

A cattle farmer, she would be seen at the vendusies where if any of the boere made the mistake of saying something, she’d be ready along the lines of “Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” A true character, salt of the earth, a socialist and a real mensch. Imagine how strong you’d have to be, being ‘anders’ in a milieu where being a Male White Afrikaans Christian made you a baas, made you automatically right and should have made all women appreciative and in their plek – and NOT at vendusies! And if they must be at vendusies they should serve the tea and koeksisters! The local boere would have known she was well-connected, though – she had served on National Party bodies – and was not to be taken lightly.

She did genealogy research and wrote two autobiographical books – I must try and get hold of them.

This from wikipedia and (Scientific Electronic Library Online):

Anna Petronella van Heerden (1887–1975), was the first Afrikaans woman to qualify as a medical doctor. Her thesis, which she obtained a doctorate on in 1923, was the first medical thesis written in Afrikaans. She practiced as a gynaecologist, retiring in 1942. She also served in the South African medical corps during World War II.

She campaigned for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, and worked as a farmer after retiring from her medical work. She also published two autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (Candle Snuffings) and Die Sestiende Koppie (the Sixteenth Cup), and other works, including: Waarom Ek ‘n Sosialis Is (1938) (Why I’m a Socialist), and Dames XVII (1969). Her awakening came, she writes in Die Sestiende Koppie, when she found out just how few rights women had, and that they were – she was! – legally classified with children and idiots!


This from Women Marching Into the 21st Century: Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo:


This from “Nationalism, Gender and Sexuality in the Autobiographical Writing of Two Afrikaner Women,” Viljoen L. (2008):

Viljoen investigates questions of nationalism, gender and sexuality in the autobiographical texts of Petronella van Heerden and Elsa Joubert, and makes the point that autobiography, a genre often considered marginal to the literary canon, can be regarded as a site for examining the impact of nationalism on the construction of gendered and sexual identity. Petronella van Heerden (1887-1975) became the first Afrikaner woman to qualify as a medical doctor and published two short autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (‘Candle Snuffings’) and Die Sestiende Koppie (‘the Sixteenth Cup’), in the early 1960s. The article argues that van Heerden’s omission of overt references to her lesbianism can be attributed to the strong, though embattled, position of Afrikaner nationalism at the time her texts were published.

My guess is there would also have been a fair dose of Nell saying ‘its none of your bloody business’ in there as well.

There’s an article about Nell in Journal of Literary Studies. (the link takes you to a summary – they want US$43 to read the whole thing!)


From the National Library of Medicine: Petronella van Heerden (1887-1975) was born in South Africa. She studied medicine in Amsterdam from 1908 to 1915 and then worked as the first female doctor in her native country for 4 years before specialising in gynaecology in London. She then returned to Amsterdam, where she gained a PhD in 1923 on a thesis on endometriosis that was written in Afrikaans. She settled in Cape Town and participated in many political and emancipatory activities alongside her work as a doctor. She wrote two autobiographies.

Nell van Heerden died in 1975, aged 88.


Oh, back to the Rolls Royce! I imagine – but I don’t know this – that it was converted into a bakkie, a pickup, a ute, after Abe had bought it from Nell. We always heard stories of how Aussie sheep farmers ‘drove Rolls Royces around their farms, as the running boards were wide enough to carry dead sheep.’ Abe would have liked that, and my guess is he thought ‘Hell, I can do that too.’


Kaapstad – Cape Town

boere – farmers

hoed – hat

vendusies – livestock sales / auctions

“Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” – Yes, Koos, I am a fuckin woman even if I don’t look like one!

anders – different; anything other than white, straight, conformist and obedient

plek – place; as in ‘know your place’

koeksisters – ‘South African doughnut’; deep-fried, very sweet

bakkie – pickup; ute



Nell was the first female SA citizen to qualify as a doctor. Other women practiced medicine in SA before her, but they were not born here.

Before Nell van Heerden: The first female to practice medicine in South Africa was Margaret Ann Bulkley. She was born in Ireland in 1789. She disguised herself as a man and called herself James Barry from then on. She qualified as a medical doctor in Edinburgh in 1812 and practiced medicine in Cape Town  from 1816 to 1828.  She effected significant changes, among them improvements to sanitation and water systems, improved conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill, and provision of a sanctuary for the leper population; performed one of the first known successful caesarian sections in which both mother and child survived; the child was christened James Barry Munnik in Barry’s honour, and the name was passed down through the family, leading to Barry’s name being borne by a later Prime Minister of South Africa, JBM Hertzog. Her birth sex only became known to the public and to her military colleagues after her death.

Before Nell: Jane Elizabeth Waterston was born in Inverness in 1843. One of the first women to be trained at the London School of Medicine for Women where she took her medical degree in 1880. She received a medical license from the Irish King and Queen’s College of Physicians. In 1883 she became a physician in Cape Town, where she died in 1932.

Same time as Nell: Mary Gordon b. 1890 in Lithuania, qualified as a doctor at the University of Durham in 1916 and emigrated to Johannesburg that year, taking up a position at the Johannesburg hospital. By 1944 she was registered as a specialist physician. Died 1971 aged 80. (Wits Review Oct 2017 Vol 38)

After Nell: In 1947 Mary Malahlele-Xakana (1916 – 1981) was the first black woman to register as a medical doctor in South Africa. Born in Polokwane, she qualified at Wits.


6 thoughts on “Petronella van Heerden

  1. Pingback: Abe Sparks | Vrystaat Confessions

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  4. Hi, just read this. This after I found your blog with a search on Tommy Bedford.
    You write well. You tell a story well, too.
    Thank you. I needed this today.

    Liked by 1 person

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