Medicine had been taught at Edinburgh University since the beginning of the sixteenth century. This University Medical School is one of the oldest in the world and it has a rich history. Before 1832 few bodies were legitimately obtainable for study purposes and keen medical students were often forced to “acquire” bodies by illicit means to use as study aids. Dr Robert Knox, one of Scotland’s best known anatomy teachers, drew his students from Edinburgh’s Medical College and sourced material for dissection from such infamous body snatchers, as Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare.
Oddly a scandal related to the illegal removal of bodies for study purposes in Scotland brought James Christie, a handsome, 23-year old medical man to early Beaufort West to serve as the first doctor in the district. In order to avoid prosecution in a matter related to the acquisition of anatomy study material James, who was born in Forfar, Scotland, in 1810. took a job as a ship’s surgeon on the Borneo, a vessel bound for India. He never reached India. The Borneo ran aground in the Mozambique Channel.
James was the eldest son of John and Jane Christie, (nee Dalgetty) and his siblings were Jane (1808), William (1812), Alexander (1815), Robert (1817) and John (1824). They were a farming family who owned a wool washery. After being shipwrecked James and a friend survived for three months on the small island of Joanna by eating shell fish and rice. Eventually they were picked up by the HMS Isis dropped off in Cape Town in 1833. Despite his lack of a surgical degree – he had a diploma in midwifery – James was immediately registered to practise as a surgeon and accoucheur and appointed Medical Officer of Health for the district between Cape Town and Beaufort.
On visit to Beaufort West he met Maria Andriesima Geertruida Meintjies, the magistrate’s daughter and she stole his heart. Maria’s father Jacobus Johannes Meintjies was one of the first magistrates appointed by Lord Charles Somerset, and her mother, Maria Carolina, was a daughter of Sir Andries Stockenström and Maria Gertruida Broeders. “James lost no time in proposing. They married and lived happily in Beaufort West where they reared ten children in Clyde House, once an old police station, but now a landmark and well known guest house. “Ill health and a severe kidney problem forced James to leave his beloved Karoo and move to Cape Town, where he could receive treatment. He died there. He and his wife are buried in St Saviour’s cemetery in Claremont.