Sara Maude Robertson – uncovering the real story

In the “Old European Cemetery” on Christmas Island there is one headstone that attracts the attention. It is the oldest grave site in that small hillside cemetery, dating to 1907, with a monument rather grand for a remote lonely island of that time. It is also the final resting place of the only woman buried there. That woman was Sara Maude Robertson.

©Barry Faiers. Used with kind permission

The inscription reads:

In Loving
The Beloved Wife
W MacDougall
Died 7th June 1907
Aged 30 years

At the foot of the pillar are very touching words from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

The moving finger writes;
and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety or wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

At the base of the monument:

Sara Maude Robertson MB ChB
William MacDougall MA MD
Of Christmas Island and Singapore
Who died at Carr Bridge on 23 June 1916
Aged 43 years

During my visit to the cemetery, I had wondered about Sara. The inscription indicated she was different to most other women of that era. Her medical qualifications displaying an MB (Bachelor of Medicine) and ChB (Bachelor of Surgery). She was probably Scottish and yet here she was on Christmas Island forever. I thought there must surely be an interesting story behind her.

My curiosity aroused, I started researching into her background. Almost immediately I came across an online biography stating that Sara had arrived on Christmas Island in 1901, burned down the hospital and eradicated that insidious disease, beriberi. The later claim jogged a memory because I had vaguely heard or read about that story before. But, there was something about that statement that created a niggling doubt. Perhaps because I had not come across her name in documentation dealing with the medical struggles against beriberi on Christmas Island (including those of her own husband Doctor William MacDougall who was the medical officer there between 1904-1908). Of course, the endeavours of women throughout history have been frequently ignored, but in this case I decided to check the facts myself and I found the answer almost immediately in John Hunt’s book “Suffering through strength“.

Confusion appears to have arisen over the simple matter of two doctors sharing the same surname. There was indeed a Dr Robertson on the island in 1901 but that was Dr Murray Robertson. He arrived on the 12th March that year. It was he who supported Lewis Clayton (a Settlements civil service officer) in persuading Captain Vincent, the Island Manager, to burn down the hospital.1 The reason for this would be that the building was overcrowded and in an appalling hygienic state.

So, the narrative circulating that Sara Maude Robertson was responsible for the eradication of beriberi and burnt down a hospital is quite erroneous. This however, does not take anything away from the story of this remarkable woman. Sara was ahead of her time, studying and navigating her way through a very traditional, male dominated profession.

She was born on the 21st May 1876 to John and Lizzie Helen Robertson and, according to the 1891 Scotland Census was one of eight children, being the third eldest, aged 14. Her father was shown as being a Supervisor, excise civil service.

As fate would have it, Sara was very nearly not on that census. Just the year before in 1890, her life was in great peril after she and two friends broke through ice whilst skating on a dam during an excursion. It was a catastrophe that claimed the life of a schoolmaster and the student he was trying to save (Eliza Wilkie). There were several large newspaper articles that dealt with the full story, but this short article sums up the details:

REWARDS FOR BRAVERY IN SCOTLAND. — On Wednesday the Royal Humane Society announced the award of three silver medals to Dr Alexander Fraser (aged 39), Mr Donald Lionel Fraser (18), engineer, and William Russell (39), engine driver, for their very gallant rescue to the Misses Jeannie Barr and Sara Robertson at Carron, near Falkirk, on the 12th ult. At the same time an “In Memoriam” certificate was awarded to the relatives of Mr Brown, who lost his life in an effort to save Miss Eliza Wilkie on the same occasion. As will be remembered that the three young ladies went hand in hand onto the frozen surface of the Carron dam, and broke through the ice. Dr Fraser and his nephew endeavoured to reach them by crawling on the ice, but they also broke through, and while the Doctor sprang back to shore the younger man managed to reach the girls, and supported them in the water for a quarter of an hour. Russell, who was passing the place on his engine, jumped off, caught hold of a pole, rushed into the ice hole to the rescue of the other girl, and supported her for ten minutes. Of Mr Brown’s heroic act to save Miss Wilkie, it is needless to speak. The event is yet fresh in the recollection of every one.

Falkirk Herald newspaper – Saturday 22 March 1890

Despite this tragic life trauma, four years later, in 1894, Sara successfully passed her university entrance examinations. A small notice appeared in the paper under the heading “Success of Falkirk High School Pupils”:

At the university Entrance Examinations just held, Miss Sara Maude Robertson, Comely Park, at present pupil in this school, has been successful in passing in English, Latin, Greek, and mathematics (including arithmetic, algebra, and geometry).

Falkirk Herald newspaper – Saturday 21 April 1894 page 4

Later in that same year on the 22nd October Sara commenced her medical studies at the Queen Margaret College, University of Glasgow.2 A medical school for women that had only opened within the college some four years earlier.

During her time at the Queen Margaret College, Sara’s studies included: Anatomy, Pathology, Surgery and Midwifery. She received certificates in Ophthalmology, Embryology, Materia Medica & Therapeutics and Practical Pharmacy. In Physics, which she took in her first year, she received a first class certificate.3

The British Medical Registers state that Sara qualified from Glasgow University in 1899 as MB & Bac Surg and she was registered on the 7th April 1900.

I believe that in her first early years after graduation from medical school she practiced under the guidance of Dr Anderson at Blackridge. This is evidenced by a small newspaper report that appears later in this story. It says that she “assisted” Dr Anderson. When reading about Dr Anderson’s early career, he himself was “assisting” an experienced doctor so it seems this was the practice of those days for new doctors, much like internships today.

There are mentions of Sara in the 1903 and 1905 Medical Registers showing her address as being at Craig Terrace, Blackridge, Linlithgowshire.

It is also around this time, that she is mentioned in her professional capacity in two small newspaper notices. Sara was breaking boundaries. The first notice appeared in 1903:

Lady Ship’s doctor

If ladies are to be denied the legal profession, they are certainly making the most of the medical. The first lady ship’s doctor – Dr Sara Robertson – has just started on a vessel going from Liverpool to the River Plate.

Bournemouth Daily Echo Thursday 17 December 1903

The second in 1904 as a Ship’s surgeon!

Ladies as ship surgeons

Another sphere of usefulness for lady medicos is suggested by the appointment of Miss Sara M. Robertson M.B., as surgeon on the s.s. Denbighshire on a round trip to Hong Kong and back.

Edinburgh Evening News – Saturday 14 May 1904 page 8

Then in 1907 Sara was to embark on somewhat of a different path. This time she was on another ship and leaving London, but not as the ship’s doctor. Instead, she was now a passenger.

List of passengers
P. & O. S. N. Co.

s.s. Mooltan, from London Jan 18, and Marseilles Jan 25: for Gibraltar, Marseilles, Port Said, Aden, Colombo, and Australia; connecting at Aden with s.s. Egypt for Bombay, and at Colombo with s.s. Macedonia for the Straits, China and Japan
… Dr. Sara Robertson

The Homeward Mail. From India China and the East – Jan 19, 1907.

She was on her way to meet Dr William MacDougall in Singapore. This is known because within a month of leaving London she married him.

MACDOUGALL-ROBERTSON. – At the Presbyterian Church Singapore on the 16th February, by the Rev. J.A. Gray, M.A., WILLIAM MACDOUGALL, M.A., M.B, C.L.B., Christmas Island and SARA ROBERTSON M.B., C.L.B., Glasgow.

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 21 February 1907, page 113.

How did Sara and William meet? William had been the medical officer on Christmas Island since 1904. Their paths must have crossed before then. A clue is to be found in the occupations of their fathers. Both had worked for the Inland Revenue. A first cousin twice removed to William MacDougall, Sheila Macdougall, confirmed to me that both fathers held senior positions in the Customs and Excise and that William’s father, Alexander MacDougall, was Provost of Rothes. She said, “My family came from a long line of Excise (Inland Revenue after 1849) men. William’s father, Alexander; grandfather, Archibald; great grandfather, Alexander and great, great grandfather, also William, were all serving officers in Scotland. My family tree has many examples of marriages between excise/revenue men (or their sons) and the daughters of other serving officers. William’s only sister, Margaret married an inland revenue officer, Patrick Laing.”

What should have been their first happily married year together ended very sadly. Less than 4 months into her marriage, Sara would be dead and laid to rest on Christmas Island. It would have been a most terrible shock not only to her grieving husband but also to her family back in Scotland. Her death notice read:

MACDOUGALL – At Christmas Island, Straits Settlements, on June 7, Sara Maude Robertson MacDougall, M.B., CH B., the wife of William MacDougall, M.B., CH.B., Medical Officer, Christmas Island

The Straits Times, 18th June 1907, page 6

Perhaps it is just a morbid curiosity, but I wondered how Sara’s life had been cut so tragically short. That such an amazing, clever, and I believe, determined, woman who had travelled half way around the world to marry her love, die very shortly after, at the age of 30. It’s quite awful to contemplate. I found the answer in the following short article:

Many will be sorry to hear of the death of Dr Sara Maude Robertson, the lady doctor who assisted Dr Anderson at Blackridge for some time, and was very popular. She died suddenly of heart failure at Christmas Island, Straits Settlements, on the 7th inst. She was the wife of Dr Wm. MacDougall, and daughter of Mr John Robertson, collector of Inland Revenue, Glasgow.

Friday 21st June 1907, Linlithgowshire Gazette page 5

William must have been heartbroken over the death of Sara. In August 1908, on his return to Singapore, he organised for a large marble monument to be placed on her grave. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see old age either. He passed away on the 23rd June 1916, aged 43, at Woodside Cottage, Carrbridge (a village in the Scottish Highlands). He had lapsed into a coma the day before. The cause of death was diabetes mellitus. The informant on the death certificate was Sara’s father, John Robertson. It is a small comfort to know that the two men must have had a continuing close relationship despite Sara’s passing. But how unfortunate that a man should outlive both his daughter and son-in-law. Interestingly, Sheila Macdougall did inform me that in the 1891 census, Sara’s grandfather, William Robertson was living in Woodside Cottage, Duthill (which is near Carrbridge), the same house where William MacDougall passed away.

And finally, it’s rather poignant that Sara’s name is engraved on William’s headstone in Scotland; as is his name engraved on hers on that little island in the Indian ocean. Two loves laid to rest, taken too early, and so very far apart.

©Barry Faiers. Used with kind permission

Suffering through Strength by John Hunt page 28
2 UK, Medical and Dental Students Registers, 1882-1937
3 University of Glasgow Story – Sara Maude Robertson