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David Duff (1883 - 1959):
Physician; barrister; colonial civil servant

David Duff was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the third son of John Duff, the secretary of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway, and his wife Anne Marie (Maude) Duff (née Elkins). Educated in Enniskillen at the Model School and then at Portora Royal School, where he won many prizes, in 1901 Duff entered Trinity College, Dublin as the second Junior Exhibitioner that year. He had a brilliant undergraduate career, becoming a Senior Exhibitioner in 1903, a Scholar in 1904, and graduating BA and Senior Moderator (first class honours) in classics in 1905. He then entered the Trinity Medical School, graduating in 1909, having come joint first in medicine and in surgery.

After a number of trips to West Africa as a ship’s doctor with the Elder Dempster lines, in the summer of 1910 Duff joined the West African Medical Service as a medical officer stationed in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), enrolling in the London School of Tropical Medicine for a Diploma in Tropical Medicine (DTM). However, with other young doctors he was ordered to the Gold Coast to assist in combating an outbreak of yellow fever at Sekondi, at that time the main port of the Gold Cost. The outbreak had been brought under control by the time of their arrival, and Duff obtained his DTM in 1911.

Duff elected to go to remote stations where medical officers were frequently required to fulfil the duties of the District Commissioner when the latter was unavailable. In his early years he acted as the District Commissioner on several occasions, once for six months, dividing his time each day between his medical duties and the multifarious duties of the District Commissioner, such as acting as a magistrate, supervising the construction of new roads, and dealing with problems relating to the recruitment of local troops.

Duff was returning on leave to the UK on board the SS Appam in January 1916 when the ship was captured by an Imperial German Navy commerce raider. The ship was taken to the United States where the captured passengers were discharged. Having returned to the UK on another ship Duff was in Dublin with his brother Charles on Easter Monday 1916 when they were advised to avoid the city centre by an armed Irish Volunteer.

Duff obtained his Diploma in Public Health (DPH) from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland in 1914, and his MD (Doctor of Medicine) from Trinity in 1918. Not content with this, in 1927 he was called to the English Bar by Gray’s Inn. He was an examiner in Fante and Hausa, and in 1917 he was recorded as interpreting in Twi. His brother Charles wrote after his brother’s death that David could speak five native languages. Throughout Duff’s service he devoted considerable time and effort to trying to improve sanitation, a major problem which played a significant part in the persistence of disease, studying some branches of engineering for that reason. During his 30 years in the Gold Coast many dangerous and infectious diseases were widespread, and his brother Charles wrote that on one occasion, despite the risk to his life, David allowed himself to be injected with a new yellow fever serum just to see how it worked on humans, developing mild yellow fever from which he recovered in a few weeks.

Such was his ability that in the late 1920s he rapidly rose in the Medical Service in the Gold Coast, becoming Deputy Director (1931) and Director (1932), serving in the latter post until his retirement in 1939. He was a member of the Legislative Council which assisted the Governor in the administration of the Colony. He was appointed CMG (1935).

In 1934 in his Annual Report he pointed out that the reduction in money and sanitary staff due to financial retrenchment led to a rise in death rates for Africans and Europeans alike. In 1937 he took to the radio to urge the population to take steps to improve sanitation to reduce the danger of yellow fever.

As Deputy Director and Director Duff did much to reduce the obstacles in the way of Africans who wished to qualify, and later serve, as medical staff. He was held in affection by his African medical staff, who presented him with an illuminated address on his retirement, and by the African population. In 1997 in Ada-Param there was still a park named after him by the Africans, and when he retired the Gold Coast Youth Conference unsuccessfully requested the Government to name the recently-built African Hospital at Cape Coast after him, recounting the important changes he supervised in the 1930s with the establishment of medical and dental scholarships, village dispensaries, midwifery services, and, above all, the role he played in creating opportunities for the employment of African medical officers.

With the onset of the Second World War Duff was appointed Principal Medical Officer of Health (infectious diseases) for the western region of England. After the War he retired again to live in County Kerry, where he learnt Irish and continued his lifetime practice of taking a Greek newspaper. He died aged 76 at his home at Ballinagroun, near Inch, County Kerry, survived by his second wife Nora Elizabeth Duff (née Harding) who was the half-sister of his first wife Winifred who predeceased him. There were no children of either marriage.


Born: 11 April 1883
Died: 27 September 1959
AR Hart & Christopher Steed

Information from Frank Roolfe provided by Gordon Brand; Portora Royal School records; Trinity College, Dublin Calendars 1902-1910; Trinity College, Dublin MSS; Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College, Dublin; Library & Archives Service, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; WWW; British Medical Journal, 25 June 1910 & 16 Jan 1960; Stephen Addae: Evolution of Modern Medicine in a Developing Country: Ghana 1880-1960, 221, 296-297, 301, 370-372; Thora Williamson: Gold Coast Diaries - Chronicles of Political Officers in West Africa (A Kirk Greene, ed), 188-189, 259-260; Biographical Notes by Charles Duff and illuminated address to David Duff, both in the possession of AR Hart. Familia, Number 33, 2017. Personal knowledge of AR Hart.