Susanna Helena Kok

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Medical doctor and surgeon who pioneered techniques of diagnosing suspected leprosy, worked with leprosy patients in various parts of Africa and did much to dispel myths associated with the spread of the disease

First name: 
Susanna
Last name: 
Kok
Date of birth: 
4 July 1911
Location of birth: 
Brandfort, Free State (then Orange Free State), South Africa
Date of death: 
4 November 1985
Location of death: 
Pretoria, Gauteng (then Transvaal), South Africa

Susanna Helena Kok was born in 1911 in Brandfort, Free State. Her father Frederik Johannes Kok was a school principal in Brandfort, where she matriculated in 1928.

Kok began her studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and later at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) where she obtained her MB ChB in 1935.

In 1936, Kok went to work at the chief mission station of the Dutch Reformed Church in Zambia, where she came into contact with leprosy patients for the first time, and which was to become the main focus of her professional life.

According to other sources, Kok also worked at Madzimoyo, an NG Kerk mission station in the Free State, and in Nsadzu, Malawi.

Kok later returned to Wits to obtain a diploma in Public Health Care, which she was awarded in 1948.

In 1949, Kok went to work for the Dutch Reformed Mission in Mkar, Nigeria, in a leper colony of 16000 people. Under M.P. Loedolff and his wife, this leper colony served about 78 clinics, some as far as 500km away.

Kok was in charge of the leprosy patients, and it was during this time that Kok, along with Dr. D.L. Leiker, made her first important contribution to medical literature when she identified and described another skin disease. This skin disease was similar to leprosy, but did not react to treatment. This disease became known as Mkar disease, or granuloma multiforme, the origins of which remain unknown.

While in Mkar, Kok made significant contributions to the promotion of literature in the local Tiv language, encouraged local people to make their own religious music and collaborated with the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association (BELRA, now LEPRA) in finding foster parents for children in need.

From 1968, Kok published several works, especially when she worked closely with other academic institutions. She was involved in medical research at Westfort Hospital for leprosy patients in Pretoria, and shortly before her death she assisted in a study of nerve conduction in leprosy patients conducted by the University of Pretoria's Neurology Department.

It was under Kok’s direction that nerve biopsies became standard procedure for diagnosing leprosy at Westfort, rather than the less successful skin analysis used before. Kok’s work also contributed to dispelling myths associated with the contagiousness of the disease.

While at Westfort, Kok visited leprosaria in various parts of Southern Africa, including Mozambique, Namibia on three occasions, Rundu in 1978 and 1981, and Katima Malilo in 1983. The result of these visits was that many leprosy patients were discharged from leprosy settlements and treated in hospitals.

Kok was a Fellow of the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and a member of the International Leprosy Association.

Kok attended the 10th International Leprosy Congress in Bergen in 1973, the 11th Congress in Mexico City in 1978 and the 12th congress in New Delhi in 1984.

Susanna Kok passed away on 4 November 1985 in Pretoria, at the age of 74.


References:
• Biographical Contribution by historian Gail Nattrass
• Dr. Susanna Kok [online] Available at: www.whoswhosa.co.za [Accessed 11 August 2009]
• Schulz, Professor E.J. (1986) In Memoriam: Susanna Helena Kok, South African Medical Journal (SAMJ), Volume 69, 1 February 1986 p. 207-8
• Sonderling, N.E. (ed.) (1999) New Dictionary of South African Biography, v. 2. Pretoria.

Last updated : 08-Aug-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 17-Feb-2011