Tribute: Dr Cen Jones
By Major General (retd) Joseph G Singh MSS, MSc, FRGS
January 28, 2007
Dr Cen Jones, who has died aged 85, was an expert in tropical medicine whose initiatives in following up on the pioneering work of Dr Giglioli, virtually eradicated malaria in British Guiana (now Guyana). He carried out and supervised the follow-up efforts at eradication of mosquitoes by sending teams spraying DDT in the main interior settlements. Later, in Kenya, he was one of the first to diagnose the deadly Ebola virus.
A compassionate, tolerant doctor, he was fascinated by other peoples and their way of life, approaching their medical problems with an earthy and often wry sense of humour. Sir David Attenborough (Zoo Quest to Guyana, 1955) who met him in the upper Mazaruni in 1955, remembered him as "someone always more concerned with the welfare of the others rather than his own."
Cenydd Richards Jones was born on January 19, 1921 at Caerphilly. He was proud of his Welsh heritage and regretted never learning Welsh, particularly as his father had not learned to speak English until he was 13, and his mother was fluent in Welsh.
After Tywyn primary school in Caerphilly, he went on to Pontypridd Grammar School. From 1938 he studied at the Welsh National School of Medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1944.
Almost immediately Jones was called up to serve in the Second World War, spending the next three years, 1944-1947, as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps assigned as regimental medical officer with the 2/1st Battalion, King's African Rifles (Nyasaland) in Kenya and Uganda. During his posting he developed an interest in tropical medicine which was to stay with him for the rest of his working life.
After demobilization in 1947 he returned to Cardiff and studied for a year as registrar in chest diseases at Sully Hospital.
From the 1930s there was an increasing recognition by the colonial administration in Georgetown of the need to provide medical attention for the inhabitants of the interior of the country. In 1949 the British Colonial Medical Service appointed Jones as first holder of the post of 'Medical Officer for the Interior.' His duties included the supply of medical services to the Amerindians who inhabited the hinterland, south to British Guiana's border with Brazil and west to the border with Venezuela. Jones was the only doctor in an area of 30,000 square miles, which was part open savannah and part tropical rain forest. Patients did not come to him; he went to them. It was challenging for, as he frequently recalled, the advertisement specified that the candidate should be prepared to undertake long-distance travel on foot, on horseback and by canoe on the rivers such as the Rupununi, Essequibo and upper Mazaruni, that crossed the country. There were then very few airstrips, and no roads in the interior, but a lot of forest trails and endless, small tributaries.
His main task was to reduce the incidence of malaria and tuberculosis. He achieved the former by training medical rangers who sprayed DDT inside the thatched huts and shelters. The incidence of malaria amongst the Akawaios was reduced to almost zero.
Dr Audrey Butt-Colson, an anthropologist from Oxford University, who was doing her field research in the upper Mazaruni recalled that "in June 1951, I encountered Dr Jones on a tour of the Upper Mazaruni District, a highland river basin in the North Pakaraima Mountains, from which the 'Lost World' [Mount Roraima] of Conan Doyle's famous novel, could be glimpsed to the west. Myself and a visiting official, VJ Correia, accompanied him and his two Medical Rangers [Arawaks from the Coast], on a tour of the local Akawaio settlements. To reach these, we spent long days in an open boat on the Mazaruni River and its tributaries. Most of the villages were situated inland, some two and a half hours' walk along narrow forest trails, so a number of the local inhabitants were employed to carry the equipment and supplies. On this occasion, it was the wettest period of the year [June]. Where the creeks had overflowed we waded through muddy water up to the waist and were drenched by periodic downpours as we clambered over giant fallen trees. Characteristically, Dr Jones cheered everyone up with light-hearted banter and jokes, which helped to alleviate discomforts and minor accidents. This struck a favourable note with the Akawaio who, themselves, usually saw the comic side and often laughed uproariously at untoward events. Thereby a mutual attachment was cemented which complemented that of a caring doctor and his patients."
According to Dr Colson, "a primary objective during the 1951 tour of duty by Dr Jones was to test for, and combat, cases of tuberculosis which had caused a number of deaths. TB had entered the indigenous communities via down-river contacts in the developing gold and diamond mining fields, where parties of Akawaio went for waged labour which enabled them to purchase much desired trade goods (shot-guns, metal tools, cloth, personal ornaments etc). A number of prominent Akawaio from Kataima [the pre-Jawalla village] had already died of TB of the lung. TB was the major reason for changes of village sites in that particular area of the Upper Mazaruni (from Awaramadopkmau, to Kataima and then to Jawalla and Quebanang). However, the medical aid which Dr Jones gave fell within a very broad spectrum, including the extraction of teeth."
As he wryly remarked, people tended to postpone dental treatment until the last possible moment, when the expedition was packed up and ready to leave. Realising that this was the last chance of aid for many months, a sufferer would come forward clutching his jaw and asking for help.
The appropriate instrument had to be unpacked and the patient seated on a convenient tree stump while Jones yanked out the troublesome tooth (or teeth), necessarily without an anaesthetic.
In 1957, he was posted to the Aden Protectorates as health adviser to the Emirates and Sultanates in the east and the west. There he contended with high temperatures and low-to-nil rainfall. Jones developed their medical services by training health assistants for work in hospitals and health centres.
In 1960 Jones became director of medical services and permanent secretary to the Federation of South Arabia. Trouble was brewing in the Yemen, and British armed forces were engaged to counter the threat from insurgents infiltrating from the north. Shots were fired and people killed. While driving his sports car Jones was fired on by a gunman with an automatic weapon. The bullets missed him by inches, leaving a diagonal line of holes across the windscreen in front of the empty passenger seat.
In November 1967 the Federation of South Arabia obtained its independence.
With his experience and knowledge of tropical diseases and administration, Jones was recruited by the World Health Organisation as an epidemiologist. In 1969 he accepted a posting to Ghana to study its health problems, including urinary schistosomiasis, which had arisen during the construction of the Volta Dam.
Later he was transferred to Kenya to run an international medical surveillance unit. His most interesting assignment was in southern Sudan, where he investigated an outbreak of an infection with a high mortality. This proved to be the first recorded outbreak of the deadly Ebola fever, and occurred at the same time as a similar outbreak in the Congo.
His last assignment was in Accra, Ghana, to run a similar surveillance unit. The main activities were to promote expanded immunization programmes in Ghana and other countries in West Africa, mainly Sierra Leone.
Jones was awarded the Davson Medal for his research on tuberculosis, and appointed MBE in 1956 for his work as medical officer to the Amerindians of British Guiana. In 1965 he was appointed OBE for his work in Aden and on his retirement from the Colonial Medical Service he was awarded the CBE. He retired, aged 60, in 1981. Cen was unmarried and died on Friday, October 27, 2006, in Charing Cross Hospital in London.
This tribute acknowledges the tremendous contribution that Dr Cen Jones made to the anti-malaria and anti-tuberculosis eradication programmes in British Guiana and for his commitment to his medical and humanitarian missions in the challenging environment in the interior of the colony.
It is of interest that in the December 2006 issue of the Royal Geographic Society's Magazine Geographical, there is a report (p 12) titled DDT Making a Comeback. The report states "The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged that DDT, a pesticide banned 30 years ago, be reintroduced to combat malaria, which kills a million people, many of them children, each year. Today, malaria remains a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment and it is estimated that 3.2 billion people live at continuous risk of this disease."
DDT was deemed the most effective method of controlling malaria-transmitting mosquitoes and it was endorsed by the WHO in 1950. Between then and 1969, its use was credited with the decline in prevalence of the disease in Africa, Latin America and Asia. However, during the 1970s, the pesticide was banned in 26 countries and severely restricted in 12 others because its long-term environmental impact and impact on human and animal health weren't fully understood. The WHO is currently endorsing DDT-based pesticides for use inside houses only, claiming that there is presently no danger to health.
It is hoped that Dr Jones' commitment to duty and dedicated service to the mission of saving human lives in the colony of British Guiana and elsewhere, will inspire those current and future generations of doctors and health workers in independent Guyana to follow his brilliant example of selfless service.
* Obituary published in the Daily Telegraph of December 14, 2006.
* E-mails from Dr Audrey Colson and her husband Robin, in December 2006 and January 2007.
* Extract from RGS Magazine Geographical, December 2006 www.geographical.co.uk