Monday, March 10, 2014

Jimmy Pills, a Scottish Doctor in Tenerife

     British residents who were lucky enough to have lived in what was still an enchanting Orotava Valley on the Atlantic island of Tenerife in the early 20th century knew him affectionately as Jimmy Pills. He was one of only a handful of doctors attending to a local population of just a few thousand. It was a time when the one or two little hospitals in the valley were in the hands of local ladies’ committees and run by nuns. The sisters, in their white and black habits, acted as nurses and were believed to be quite efficient. However, by tradition, they were not permitted to touch a male invalid.

 The enchanting Orotava Valley, as painted by Ella Du cane

     Doctor Ingram was born in Edinburgh in 1860. His father was the Reverend Gordon Ingram, Minister of Urquhart and he was one of eleven brothers and sisters. When he arrived in Tenerife after a spell in Africa in about 1903 he initially worked with Doctor Tomás Zerolo, a well-known local practitioner based in La Orotava. Eventually he took over a surgery from a fellow Scot, Doctor Frederick Lisham, in Puerto de la Cruz. Jimmy Pills became a very popular figure in the town and was well liked by both British and Canary Islanders. He rented San Antonio, the huge mansion just beside the British Games Club where he lived with his wife, Leticia McAndish.

  The San Antonio mansion, as seen from the bowls green at the British Games Club

     It might have been a personal decision taken by a grumpy councillor at the time but when he first applied to open his own surgery in Puerto, Doctor Ingram was not granted permission to do so for one of those simple, bureaucratic reasons minor politicians so enjoy to find. He couldn’t provide acceptable proof in Spanish that he was a qualified doctor, even though his medical knowledge had already been put to the test with considerable merit under Doctor Zerolo in La Orotava. In other words, he might have been highly trained in Edinburgh but without a Spanish title obtained at a Spanish University there was nothing to do. Like most British residents who decide to settle in the Canary Islands, Jimmy Pills was by no means a linguist and never quite got to grips with the Spanish language, and his accent was often made fun of. Nevertheless James Ingram refused to give up. After studying at Madrid University he got his Spanish title and with it permission to treat local patients.
     In those days privileged folk in the Canaries seem to have suffered quite a lot from rheumatism, gout and diseases of the kidney. Jimmy Pills was always one for healthy, natural remedies and would advocate patients, especially those with gout and kidney complaints, to indulge themselves with a constant supply of green vegetables, tomatoes and fresh fruit, all of which were in abundance locally.

 Abundant local produce at the market

     Nevertheless, he was anxious to advise newly arrived visitors that they should wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, to refrain from taking exercise in the heat of the summer and to be extremely wary of the local wine. Canary wines today are first class, of course, the whites and rosés being highly acclaimed for their quality and variety, but unwary foreigners do still suffer bouts of what, in the early 1900s, was known as climatic diarrhoea. This was commonly blamed upon some kind of unsympathetic matter in the stomach and the cure would generally be commenced by a very Anglo-Saxon strong dose of castor oil. Much more pleasant was a retreat, by mule, up into the dry atmosphere on Mount Teide, which apparently did wonders for lung complaints. However, Jimmy Pills was a great believer in sea bathing all the year round, which he strongly recommended to keep bugs at bay. This was something local islanders tended to avoid doing and many, even a century later, still believe one should only step onto the beach from May until October…when the magnificent black sand beaches are almost too hot to walk upon.

English ladies on the Martianez Beach in Puerto de la Cruz in the early 20th century

     James Ingram was a likeable gentleman and he became one of the great characters in the valley. He was driven around the dusty roads in a little Ford by his local chauffeur called Tamajón, and most of the wealthy families were treated by him at one stage or another. The Scottish doctor was also generous with the poor. There was no health service, of course, and he is known to have never asked for a penny from anyone who didn’t have the means to pay. 
     Jimmy Pills took on a young apprentice, Doctor Isidoro Luz Carpenter, and an English nurse called Miss Stevens. The apprentice went on to become one of the finest doctors in the valley and he must have learnt a thing or two from his Scottish mentor because queues of working class patients would be seen waiting for free medical treatment outside the surgery in the middle of banana plantations on his estate, El Llano del Pavo.

A Memorial sculpture of Isidoro Luz on the Matianez seafront in Puerto

     Doctor Luz also became one of the most outstanding mayors ever to govern Puerto de la Cruz and it is perhaps through him that the good Doctor Ingram is still remembered today. As Mayor many years after the doctor’s death in 1933, he was able to honour James Ingram by naming one of Puerto’s central streets after him. In fact Jimmy Pills had already been decorated by the Town Council towards the end of the First World War for his work dealing with a flu epidemic.

                                                                       Doorway to the Protestant Cemetery in Puerto de la Cruz

     James Kyd Duncan Ingram died in 1933 and was laid to rest in el cementerio inglés, the English Protestant Cemetery in Puerto de la Cruz.

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales