Frances Rix Ames was born in Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng), on 20 April 1920. Her father deserted the family when she was still an infant, leaving her mother, a nursing sister, penniless, to raise three daughters on her own. The family moved to Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape) and for a while, Ames was placed in a Catholic home, where she contracted typhoid. She was later reunited with her mother when she was able to care for her children again.
Prof Ames obtained her MB ChB degree from the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1942. She then worked as an intern at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, and as a general practitioner in the Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province). In 1964, Ames became the first woman to receive UCT’s Doctor of Medicine degree before becoming Head of the Department of Neurology from 1976 to 1986. She became a specialist and consultant in neurology and psychiatry at Groote Schuur (becoming the full-time hospital neurologist in 1961) while also teaching psychiatry at UCT.
In 1967, her husband, David Castle, a journalist who gave the Cape Times newspaper a strong liberal voice during apartheid’s early years, died suddenly. The family’s Xhosa domestic worker, Rosalina, stepped in not just to help with the housekeeping, but with mothering Ames’s four young sons over the next thirty years. Ames later documented the two women’s story in her book, Mothering In An Apartheid Society (2002).
Human rights were always a matter of concern for Prof Ames. She counselled political prisoners and drew attention to the plight of those that were held incommunicado and in solitary confinement. Furthermore, she was troubled by how doctors tended to allow the security police to interfere with their clinical judgment, allowing police to dictate to them at the expense of their patients.
Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), died in detention on 12 September 1977 after being severely assaulted by security police. Before his death (which was one in a string of prison deaths), he had been seen by Dr Benjamin Tucker, chief district surgeon of Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, and his assistant, Dr Ivor Lang, who consented to the decision made by the security police to drive Biko 700 miles (almost 1130 km) from Port Elizabeth to a prison hospital in Pretoria. Lang further certified that there was no evidence of abnormal pathology (which was a lie).
In April 1980, the then South African Medical and Dental Council (SAMDC) exonerated Tucker and Lang of any wrongdoing or disgraceful conduct. In response to the council’s failure to discipline the two doctors, Prof Ames and a small group of colleagues, angered by not only the death of Biko but the SAMDC’s response, demanded a full inquiry into Biko’s death, as well as a clear statement from the medical profession’s ethical body about the duties of doctors to their patients, irrespective of the circumstances. At one point, the British Medical Association suggested that unless the matter was resolved, South African medical qualifications would not be recognised in Britain and other countries.
The SAMDC rejected Prof. Ames’s demand. Unwilling to throw in the towel, Prof. Ames applied for a Supreme Court order to force a full inquiry, at the risk of losing her job and her personal safety. After drawn-out proceedings, she was finally granted the order and in 1985, Tucker was struck off the SAMDC roll while Lang was reprimanded and warned. After the African National Congress (ANC) came into power in 1994, Ames testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about her work on the Biko medical ethics inquiry.
Prof Ames was conferred the Order of the Star of South Africa by former President Nelson Mandela in 1999 (which was at the time the country’s highest civilian award), in acknowledgement of her courageous work on human rights. In 1997, she was made an Emeritus Associate Professor and in 2001, was awarded the degree of Doctor of Science in Medicine (honoris causa) by the UCT. She had a room named after her in 2012 at UCT’s campus of the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Prof. Ames was also a dedicated advocate of the decriminalisation of cannabis for further research and medical use. Seeing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis on patients in the hospital she worked at inspired her to become an early supporter of medicinal cannabis. As such, she studied the effects of cannabis on the brain and published many articles on the topic.
Even in retirement, Prof Ames continued teaching neurology to psychiatric registrars and ran the EEG (electroencephalogram) unit at Valkenberg Hospital in Cape Town. She also continued practising clinical medicine.
Professor Frances Rix Ames died from leukaemia on 11 November 2002. An ardent fighter for human rights, Prof. Ames was one of only a few doctors during the apartheid years that were willing to openly speak out against human rights abuses despite the risk to their professional careers. She is survived by her sons Adrian, Jeremy, Ben and David.
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- Shaw, G. (2002). Frances Ames, [online], Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/nov/22/guardianobituaries. (Accessed on 29 September 2020)
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