Partner Gladys Steyn, Irene Heseltine
Petronella Van Heerden St Wilgepark, Harrismith, 9880, South Africa
Anna Petronella van Heerden (1887–1975), was the first Afrikaner woman to qualify as a medical doctor. Her thesis, for which she obtained a doctorate in 1923, was the first medical thesis written in Afrikaans. She practiced as a gynecologist, retiring in 1942. She also served in the South African medical corps during World War II.
Van Heerden was born on 26 April 1887 in Bethlehem, South Africa.. Her parents were Francois Willem van Heerden and Josephine Ryneva Beck Horak. She was the middle child with an older brother Alexander Charles and a younger brother Frankie.
Impoverished after the South African War (1899-1902), the Van Heerden family was forced to move back to the family farm, Brandkraal, in the Little Karoo.
She was educated at the Hugenot Seminary in Wellington and Victoria College in Stellenbosch. She studied at the University of Amsterdam from 1908 to 1915 where she completed her medical degree. Van Heerden served as an intern at the Volkshuishospitaal in Bloemfontein in 1916 and had her own practice in Harrismith from 1917. She specialised in gynaecology in London from 1921 before returning to Amsterdam to complete her PhD. After obtaining her doctorate in 1923 with a thesis entitled, The so-called adenoma of the ovary, she moved to Cape Town where she practiced as a gynaecologist. Van Heerden served in the South African medical corps during World War II and in 1942 she retired from her practice.
She served on the main committee of the Cape National Party in 1924 and took an active role in the dispute over the national flag. She also campaigned for women's suffrage.
In 1931 Van Heerden took part in the excavations at Wadi el Maghara at Mount Carmel in Palestine that were led by Dorothy Garrod.
Van Heerden published two autobiographical texts, Candle Snuffings (1962) and The Sixteenth Cup (1965), and other works, including: Why I'm a Socialist (1938), Family Tree of the Van Heerden Family (1969) and Ladies XVII (1969).
In her autobiography she mentions (her lovers) Gladys and Freddie, but does not explicitly expound on the intimacies. Gladys Steyn, as suggested in Van Heerden's memoirs, was the first woman to permanently live with her, and was followed by Irene Heseltine (called Freddie).
Gladys accompanied her when she was summoned to an accouchement and would even help administering the anaesthetics. When Van Heerden planned to return to London, to become a clinical assistant from where she would move to the Netherlands to complete her gynaecology dissertation, she explains that: 'Gladys felt like studying to be a lawyer and we decided to go'.
In her discussion of the nature of the relationship between Gladys and Van Heerden, Viljoen refers to the correspondence between Tibbie Steyn (published in her biography) and Emily Hobhouse. Tibbie Steyn was Gladys's mother and the wife of M.T. Steyn, president of the Republic of the Orange Free State during the South African War. Gladys was also a principal of a girls' school in Bloemfontein before she left her post and became Van Heerden's housekeeper. In the letter to Hobhouse, Steyn laments the fact that her daughter is 'in a way lost' and that she wonders why God allowed 'Nell to cross Gladdies path'. She explains that she has reconciled herself with Gladys, who was 'a sweet girl', living with Van Heerden because she 'seems happy'. Hobhouse replied: "I understand now, also from what you say, that you feel regretful over Gladys' attachment to Nell v. Heerden. It always appeared to me very strange & somewhat unusual in S. African life. But you know in Europe it is an everyday matter this coupling up of young women who have struck out for themselves & do not marry. They find thus the companionship they need & one usually I notice, takes the more masculine, the other the more feminine role. Thus they secure nearly (not quite) the best of both types of life - having complete independence coupled with companionship which prevents the sinking into the old time 'Old-maidenism'. Nell is to all intents & purposes a man, or what is called a 'bachelor-woman'."
In England, Van Heerden befriended Freddie, whose given name was Irene Heseltine. She mentions that she would have met up with Gladys in Innsbruck but later refers to the fact that she and Freddie accidentally bumped into Gladys 'and her friend' in Cortina. What is suggested is that Gladys took a new lover, and Van Heerden and Freddie became lovers. Later, on her return to South Africa, Freddie accompanied Van Heerden while Gladys remained in Europe. That Freddie and Van Heerden moved in together is confirmed in Van Heerden's account that she travelled to Harrismith to retrieve her possessions while Freddie remained in Cape Town to search for a suitable house for the two of them. Another hint is contained in the comment that she was discouraged from opening a practice in Cape Town because the 'people were too conservative'. Van Heerden regularly refers to Freddie in the final section of the memoir, confirming on the penultimate page that Freddie went to the 'farm' to live with her as, one can presume, her life partner.
Van Heerden's memoirs received little academic attention until after 2000. Since then some studies have been made of her limited works. Lizelle Smit presented a masters dissertation on "South African Women’s Life Writing" in 2015 and some of the points relating to Van Heerden covered in this research are: her subtle manipulations of the autobiographical content to convey important issues to Afrikaner-youth of the time; her changing presentation of feminist issues and her lesbian sexual identity, especially in light of the fact that South Africa didn't accept the existence of lesbians for most of Van Heerden's life; and her critique of gender inequality.
Van Heerden spent some of her later life after retirement working on a farm where she raised cattle. She was often seen at cattle auctions, actively participating, which was unheard of for a woman at that time in South Africa. Van Heerden never married and she died in Cape Town on 10 January 1975. Freddie was named in Van Heerden's will.
Etienne van Heerden, Petronella's nephew, published Kikoejoe in 1996. Tant Geert in Kikoejoe is based on Petronella van Heerden: "Tant Geert is very loosely based on Petronella van Heerden, the first Afrikaans female doctor. She used to visit our farm when I was a child. She wore these blazers and flannels, and sat like a man. Of course, she was a dyke but no one said it. A bright woman, she was the intellectual in the family. So it’s loosely based on her."
Petronella Van Heerden St in Harrismith is named after her.
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