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Schweitzer’s Angel: Louise Jilek-Aall

September 22nd, 2012

The trio of Jane Goodall, patient Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas are often described as Leakey’s Angels because all three women have pursued groundbreaking studies of primates after meeting archaeologist Louis Leakey. Louise Jilek-Aall of Tsawwassen is Albert Schweitzer’s Angel.

As a medical student in Oslo, Louise Jilek-Aall was deeply impressed when the African missionary delivered his Nobel Peace Prize speech on November 4, 1954, at Oslo University. (Schweitzer had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 but his duties in Africa prevented him from appearing at the award ceremony.)

Seven years later she arrived unannounced at Schweitzer’s jungle hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon.

“And what do you want to learn from me?” he asked.

She nervously blurted out, “I want to learn to extract teeth.”

Schweitzer’s work as a physician in Africa, from 1912 to 1965, has inspired Louise Jilek-Aall ever since. Today she keeps a grass mat tapestry hanging over her kitchen table that was given to her as a parting gift by Schweitzer, also a scientist/philosopher and music scholar. His famous clinic was the subject of her second book, Working with Dr. Schweitzer: Sharing his Reverence for Life (1990).

“In my work as a psychiatrist,” she writes, “I am keenly interested in people who are role models and who serve as ego-ideals, especially for the young; but only a very few appear to be worthwhile models.”

Before meeting Schweitzer, Louise Aall worked as a bush doctor in Tanganyika/Tanzania and received the Henri Dunant Medal from the Red Cross for distinguished service with U.N. forces during the Congo civil war in 1960.

Newly revised and updated, Jilek-Aall’s first book Call Mama Doctor (WestPro) is a superb collection of remarkable stories recalling her experiences in Tanganyika/Tanzania. The stories are both harrowing and touching— because she continuously took risks beyond the confines of an established clinic.

In Tanganyika, Jilek-Aall discovered outcasts in the Mahenge Mountains who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy, prompting her to create the Mahenge Epilepsy Clinic to treat patients and educate families about epilepsy and its modern treatment. Epilepsy sufferers in Mahenge are no longer stigmatized or forced to live as outcasts.

As well as having a medical degree in tropical medicine, Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall speaks Norwegian, English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Suahili.

She and her husband Dr. Wolfgang G. Jilek are trans-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists who have been members of the UBC Faculty of Medicine since 1975.

The Jilek-Aall family has continuously supported the Mahenge Clinic and initiated research into epilepsy with teams of specialists from Canada, Austria, Germany and Tanzania. They have scientifically confirmed the existence of a unique form of epilepsy (“head nodding syndrome”), first described by Dr. Aall in the 1960s.

She now works to confirm its likely source is a parasite found in many tropical regions (Filaria-worm Onchocerca volvulus).

Jilek-Aall’s fascinating stories arise from the intersection of trans-cultural psychiatry, bush doctoring, folk medicine and ground-breaking scientific research.

Although Call Mama Doctor and Working with Dr. Schweitzer were also published in China, Japan and Hungary, Jilek-Aall’s books are almost unknown in North America.

In a nutshell, her first book was produced in order to shed light on the inspirational people of Tanganyika/Tanzania, her second book sheds light on an inspirational character.

The revised version of Call Mama Doctor has been repackaged by a neophyte publishing service in Aldergrove.

Jilek-Aall has yet to write about her service with the U.N. and International Red Cross during the Congo civil war—and she has yet to write an extensive account of her main accomplishment: the Mahenge Clinic.

If the story of Dr. Jilek-Aall was ever made into a movie, it could begin when she returned to Europe from Africa determined to help solve the epilepsy problem in Mahenge. But where to start?

“Epilepsy falls between the specialties of neurology and psychiatry,” she writes. “It is a stepchild of medicine and therefore institutions for epileptics usually suffer from a lack of funds.”

After she found work as a resident psychiatrist at the Zurich University Clinic, her lone supporter was professor Manfred Bleuler, chief of psychiatry at the university clinic. He arranged for Jilek-Aall to present a briefing on her epilepsy treatment project to the man in charge of mental health initiatives at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva.

The elderly man greeted Jilek-Aall from behind his dark glasses. He challenged her credibility from the outset. He wanted to know if she was a specialist in neurology. She stammered, and desperately tried to convince him to give her even a small amount of funding.

“Well then, young lady,” he interrupted, and his voice sounded annoyed, “neither Professor Bleuler’s recommendations nor your beautiful eyes will help you in this matter. Since there appears to be some virtue in your proposals, I suggest you come back to us when you are a specialist and you have made a name for yourself.”

Initially crushed, she regained her self-confidence. “I am going to build the treatment centre for kifafa even if I do not get any help from WHO!” she decided.

Bleuler arranged for her to work at the Swiss Institute for Epileptics in Zurich. “Whenever my clinic in Tanzania ran out of funds,” she says, “I sent part of my salary to the nurse.” Bleuler also contacted pharmaceutical companies to have them donate medications and funds for Mahenge.

Then Bleuler raised another hurdle for her to consider. Louise Aall was an attractive, vibrant young woman. Did she ever wish to marry? Raise a family? He cautioned her that devoting her life to Africa might require the sacrificing of her personal life. Clearly she was at a crossroads.

In Zurich, Jilek-Aall was contacted by a professor of pharmacology for whom she had brought some medicinal herbs from Africa. It turned out that bark she had received from a medicine man at Mahenge had anti-epileptic properties, as proven in a Swiss laboratory. A decoction of the bark had been administered to test rats and had indeed reduced the induced convulsions.

If Jilek-Aall would accept funding from the pharmaceutical laboratories, would she be willing and able to return to Mahenge in order to procure one thousand pounds of this bark for conclusive analysis?

“I was speechless,” she writes. “It was as if suddenly all the patients in Africa came alive inside my head, rushing forward, laughing, crying, calling and demanding. To my surprise, my first feeling was apprehension rather than joy. Going to Africa right now? It would not be adventure any more—I knew that life too well. It was easy to dream about Africa in my comfortable apartment in Zurich—but to face all those problems again? What about my training which would have to be interrupted, and my well-paying job? I dropped my head in shame.”

Perplexed about what to do with her life, Jilek-Aall was invited by an Austrian colleague at the clinic to accompany him for an afternoon drive. They had never met outside the hospital. He wanted to take some photographs of the lake. She agreed, but with little enthusiasm. As they drove along the lake, she was absent-minded, barely able to follow the conversation.

He set up his tripod. There was a marvellous view of an old castle. An amorous young couple was sitting on a bench. The Austrian proceeded to intrude upon their intimacy. The young man looked up with a frown and said something in Italian. Jilek-Aall’s Austrian colleague responded with a joke in Italian. There was laughter. All was well. The couple said they did not mind being photographed with the castle in the background. The picturesque castle glowing in the setting sun was mirrored in the calm waters.

“And as I stood at the railing,” Jilek- Aall recalls, “smiling to myself, a new awareness came over me. Never had the colours of the sky appeared so warm, the songs of the birds sounded so gay and the sight of gold-rimmed clouds filled me with such content. In my heart I recognized that it all happened because I was not alone.”

On the drive back, she began to tell her colleague about Africa, about Mahenge. Louise Aall agreed to meet with the pharmaceutical representative to discuss the logistics of the proposal. Just as she was preparing to attend this meeting, her photographer colleague caught up with her. He asked if it would be of any help if he came along to Africa? “I have some experience in neurology and psychiatry,” he said.

Louise Aall looked at this man with blank astonishment. It took her a moment to rearrange her thoughts. “Slowly a feeling of great relief spread through me,” she recalls. “I would not have to go back to Africa alone.” She realized she wanted to go to Africa with this man—and she still didn’t even know his first name.
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In 1963, Wolfgang Jilek—her Austrian colleague with the camera—and Louise Jilek-Aall came to Canada to attend McGill University to specialize in “trans-cultural” psychiatry. They mostly wanted to expand their horizons as doctors but the Canadian consulate advised them to arrive as immigrants.

Driving across Canada for a holiday, the couple was taken aback by the beauty of British Columbia. They discovered they could get positions at UBC, but only if they agreed to first work in an area that lacked psychiatrists. So they worked and thrived in the Fraser Valley, based in Chilliwack, from 1966 onward.

Relocation brought them into contact with members of different ethnic groups—specifically the Mennonites, Dutch Reformed Church members, Doukhobors and First Nations. As transcultural specialists, they were able to publish papers germane to their field of expertise.

Increasingly the couple provided psychiatric consultation to indigenous populations in the Fraser Valley and on the Pacific Northwest coast. Friendly visitors to their home have included the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Chief Jimmy Sewid of Alert Bay, Haida artist Bill Reid, Seshaht artist George Clutesi and the UBC anthropologist Wilson Duff.

They both received Masters degrees in anthropology from UBC. In 1970, Wolfgang Jilek founded the Canadian Psychiatric Association’s Section on Native Peoples’ Mental Health. His books include Salish Indian Mental Health and Culture Change: Psychohygienic and Therapeutic Aspects of the Guardian Spirit Ceremonial (1974) and a bestseller called Indian Healing: Shamanic Ceremonialism in the Pacific Northwest Today (1982).

Essay Date: 2010

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