Passing of UCT legend Frances Ames

18 November 2002
Champion of humanity: Emeritus Assoc. Prof. Frances Ames has left a legacy of courage, integrity and leadership.

ONE OF the Health Sciences Faculty's most distinguished and best-loved professors, Emeritus Associate Professor Frances Ames, died peacefully at her Rondebosch home last Monday of leukaemia . She was 82.

An ardent human rights activist, Ames was also something of a trend-setter. She completed the first of her four degrees in 1942 (MBChB), and in 1954 was the first woman to receive the MD degree from UCT.

After completing her training in neurology and psychiatry, she became a fulltime lecturer in the Department of Neurology at Groote Schuur Hospital and was appointed head of the department in 1976. She was promoted ad hominem to associate professor in 1978 and to Emeritus Associate Professor in 1997. Last June UCT awarded her an honorary doctorate in Medicine (DScMed).

After her retirement in 1985, she joined the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health as a part-time lecturer, conducting sessions at Valkenberg and Alexandra Hospitals.

But Ames is perhaps best remembered as the woman who blew the whistle on the district surgeon and doctor who treated black consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died in detention in 1977.

She and five colleagues brought a successful action against the powerful South African Medical and Dental Council, which put her own career, and safety, on the line. As a result, the SAMDC was compelled to set up an enquiry into the conduct of the doctors involved. She also testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to this effect.

Deeply concerned with human rights and medical ethics, Ames spoke and wrote on these topics and also counselled political prisoners. In 1999, Former President Nelson Mandela conferred one of the country's highest honours on Ames; the Star of South Africa (Non-military).

“Besides her extraordinary courage, Frances was an outstanding teacher, researcher and clinician, and her students sought her out right until her final illness a few weeks ago,” said Professor Brian Robertson, HOD of Psychiatry and Mental Health.

“Her warmth and charm were combined with fearless integrity and wisdom, and won her many friends and followers.”

Robertson also paid tribute to Ames' human rights activities. “Her leadership at that time was a beacon to everyone, not only in the Faculty of Health Sciences and at UCT, but also within greater South African society.”

Ames, he added, was an outstanding teacher in neurology and many postgraduate students wanted only her as their lecturer. “While Frances the person will be sorely missed by colleagues and friends, Frances the leader will live on to inspire us. The Faculty is proud to have been associated with someone of such stature.”

Ames will also be remembered for her valour and commitment; she was 47 when her husband died, leaving her the “double burden” of raising four sons and working outside the home in the predominantly male-dominated medical profession.

She was still working at Valkenberg until shortly before her death. In an interview with Monday Paper after the publication of her book, Mothering in an Apartheid Society, earlier this year, Ames said: “I feel infinitely privileged in being able to continue the work I love. I still take fire over all sorts of issues. I shall go on until I drop.”

UCT extends deepest sympathies to her four sons, family, friends and colleagues. A remembrance service will be held for her at Valkenberg Hospital on November 19 at 10h00.

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