A conversation with the late Dr Yohannes Workneh, the son of the first Ethiopian physician, Hakim Workneh.
Surafel: Who is Hakim Workneh?
Dr Yohannes : My father was only 3 years old when he was taken prisoner at the battle of Magdala (April 1868 between Britain and Abyssinia) along with prince Alemayehu, the son of Emperor Tewodros II. After they confirmed that the Emperor only had a son, my father was later adopted by Reverend Martin who raised him in India.
Surafel: What happened in India?
Dr Yohannes : Reverend Martin raised my father in good condition. He attended medical school and later became a surgeon in Scotland. He later worked as a district officer in Burma.
Surafel: His name?
Dr Yohannes : The name Workneh came later. His name was Charles Martin.
Surafel: Was he married?
Dr Yohannes: No but he had a son and named him Tewodros. He moved to Addis after the war, Adwa.
Surafel: Menelik II‘s physician?
Dr Yohannes : My father started treating patients at Janmeda soon after he returned to Addis. One day a woman would stare at him and he asked what she was looking for. She said that her nephew was taken at Magdala and she came from Gondar after she heard about him. She said he had a birth mark and was only 3 when taken. His parents had since passed. The birth mark confirmed that the little boy was indeed Charles Martin. His name was Workneh which my father later adopted. He also took care of Menelik II who had hypertension and suffered from stroke. Low salt diet was the only thing available at the time to treat hypertension but Queen Taytu would refuse that. She wouldn’t allow the King of Ethiopia a low salt bland diet!
Surafel: What was the cause of Menelik’s death ?
Dr Yohannes: Stroke, hypertensive stroke. That is what my father told me.
Surafel: Tell me about your mother.
Dr Yohannes : She was only 17 or 18 when she married Workneh who was in his 40s. He trained her to do basic nursing and was treating along with him at Janmeda.
Surafel: Can she be considered as the first Ethiopian nurse?
Dr Yohannes : Indeed.
Surafel: Then what happened?
Dr Yohannes: My father was assigned to be Ambassador to England few months before the second Ethio-Italian war. My father had 12 children, 6 boys and 6 girls. He took some of us to England with him. I was 7 or 8 years old. Emperor Haileselassie later joined us. We didn’t stay long. We had to move to India.
Surafel: Why ?
Dr Yohannes: The Ethiopian embassy was closed. There was no money to support us.
Surafel: What happened to those who stayed behind?
Dr Yohannes: My mother and my sisters were taken to Italy as political prisoners. Two of my older brothers returned from England to fight for Ethiopian freedom and were killed. Yosef Workneh was studying mechanical engineering and Biniam Workneh was studying soil engineering.
Surafel: After the war?
Dr Yohannes: My father soon retired. I went to Cairo for a year of education. I also went to Beirut with a scholarship but came back later. I subsequently got a scholarship to go to McGill where I received my Bachelor of Science and completed medical school.
Surafel: Why medicine
Dr Yohannes: I was the closest child to my father. He pushed me to go do medicine.
Surafel: How long did your father live?
Dr Yohannes: He was close to 90 when he died around 1953, of old age.
Surafel: How were you perceived at home after returning from medical school abroad?
Dr Yohannes: Initially we had a lot of difficulties but things changed slowly. I worked as a general surgeon and a gynecologist.
Surafel: Memorable moments?
Dr Yohannes: I was Emperor Haileselassie’s physician. I had travelled with him to the White House and Kremlin and all over the world. During the Korean War, I led the Ethiopian medical delegation. We were given a prize from President Eisenhower for helping US soldiers during the war.
Surafel : Were you involved in Fistula surgery ?
Dr Yohannes: Yes, along with Dr Bolt. We were the first. We trained Dr Hamlin. No one gives us credit.
Surafel: What do you do now?
Dr Yohannes: I have long retired; fishing, reading books.
Surafel: Wish you the best.
Dr Yohannes: Thank you.
This interview was conducted in late 1990s. The Amharic version was first published on Tenaystilign, the first medical newspaper in Ethiopia.