Aderem: A True Humanitarian
/ Apr 2006)
As Minnie Aderem's children, it was an honour to be asked
about our mother. Many words come to mind when thinking of her:
mother, mentor, humanitarian, physician, activist, feminist, and
friend. She was ahead of her time- a female doctor, left-wing in her
politics, an environmentalist, with openness to other ways of
thinking, including alternative medicine. She was an amazingly strong
and courageous woman who was simultaneously kind, gentle and
sensitive, yet passionate, feisty and adventurous. Minnie had a
wonderful, interesting, and full life. She touched many lives and
She was born in 1925 in a little Karoo town called Oudsthorn,
known as little Jerusalem due to the high number of Lithuanian Jewish
immigrants. She was raised on an ostrich farm in the Bavianskloof, an
area in South Africa much like Arizona. The landscape there is
rugged and beautiful, and Minnie loved it. Many of her qualities were
molded there, including her tenacity, her willpower, her sense of
family, and her caring for those less fortunate.
During her early years, she was taught in a one-room farm
often talked fondly of these early experiences and of the close bond
between her and her siblings, her hardworking father and her caring
mother from whom she learned the value of kindness, which was to
become the basis of how she related to others and led her life. She
was the epitome of love and caring, which she modelled in many ways,
such as "tucking in" her daughter's dolls every night so they
"wouldn't be cold." This belief, that no one should ever be
hungry, was a driving force in her advocacy.
She went to high school in Port Elizabeth, an experience
The girls were snobs, and she was bookish. Fortunately she had a
brilliant intellect and escaped high school in record time. In those
days you could skip grades if you were bright enough, and she
leap-frogged subject after subject. This portended things to come.
At 15 she went to Medical School at the University of the
Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and graduated as an MD at age 20. In
fact she had to wait three months for her 21st birthday to formally
qualify as a doctor and was always professionally known by her maiden
name of Gellman. After her commitment to her family, medicine was to
be the focus of her life. As a doctor, she was one of a kind. She had
extraordinary clinical instincts, and approached her patients in a
holistic way, looking beyond their physical symptoms and considering
their physical, mental, and social conditions. She always insisted on
not just considering the presenting symptom, but rather on giving
each person a full examination, saying, "one is not just an
ankle/neck, etc." She had a strong belief in the power of a person's
will to help them fight for their own well-being. She approached
every patient with integrity, dedication and a depth of caring.
During the 1940's Johannesburg was a hotbed of political
and Minnie was exposed to it. She worked at Baragwanath hospital in
Soweto and saw the brutality of Apartheid on a daily basis. She also
went to ANC meetings where she heard two young lawyers speak. One was
Nelson Mandela, the other Walter Sisulu. Both, according to her, were
scintillating speakers. She was a strong believer in equal rights for
all and abhorred Apartheid and the misery it inflicted. She related
many stories of these times, a favorite being about her confrontation
with a policeman. He insisted on remaining in the operating room as
she attended to a political prisoner. She threw him out
physically-and they were not the same size! (She was
She subsequently worked at the Livingstone hospital in Port
Elizabeth. Livingstone was also situated in a black township, and
her political sensibilities were further honed there. It was in Port
Elizabeth that she met her husband. Jack was the diametric opposite
of Minnie: she was shy, he was an athletic, gregarious raconteur, a
so-called "confirmed bachelor," aged 40. After a whirlwind romance
they were married.
Her eldest son Alan was born in Port Elizabeth. Six months
family moved to a small Karoo town called Willowmore, in large
measure because her parents were aging and there was no doctor.
Selfless acts were to become the hallmark of her life.
It was in Willowmore that Minnie demonstrated her ability
general practitioner. At first she worked part time as a doctor,
running her practice out of her "rooms" just a few doors from
home, so that her children could run freely back and forth. In
accordance with the laws of Apartheid South Africa, she had to have
separate waiting and examining rooms for white and coloured or black
people. However, she kept a fair non-racist count of how long people
She was, at times, the only doctor to the people in this
with its huge outlying farming community. She was the personification
of a committed family doctor, practicing true community medicine. She
would do house visits, even if it meant being taken by tractor up a
mountain to a little cabin, or being raised up a ladder to give an
injection to someone who had gone into anaphylactic shock from a bee
sting while working on a high wire-of course with the whole town
watching from below!
Practicing medicine in Willowmore taught her about every
In any given day, she might be an anesthetist in the morning, a
pediatrician at noon, and an obstetrician at night. She administered
health care to the entire community. Most importantly, she was a
friend and physician to the black community. This was essentially a
volunteer job, since the community was practically indigent, and
could not pay. Day and night she entered the black townships. This
was a time when the townships were quite dangerous, the logical
consequence of extreme poverty. However, Minnie was welcomed as a
As she worked in isolation, her strong professional ethic
would regularly attend conferences and consult with experts. If
concerned, she would take patients to the next town. It was not a
simple feat for someone who was prone to carsickness to ride in the
back of an ambulance along a winding mountain road!
We never realized the extent of Minnie's influence on the
of Willowmore until we returned years later. People would besiege us
with stories about her. Many adults told us that they were delivered
by her and were "Dokter Minnie se kinder s" (Doctor Minnie's
Her second son Lester and daughter Michele were born while
Willowmore. Minnie was an exceptionally devoted mother, keeping daily
journals on each of her children. She found parenthood exciting and
fulfilling. We were a tight knit family and lived next door to our
grandparents and aunt. Another sister and her family lived on a
nearby farm and her brother and his family lived on the original
farm. Then disaster struck: her mother and husband died in the same
year, and her father died a year and a half later. Minnie was a widow
at 38. She had three small children to provide for and went back to
practicing medicine full time.
After moving to Cape Town, she was in charge of the ER at
Rondebosch Hospital. Like all ER's the place was absolute chaos,
especially on weekend nights when there were plenty of knife and
gunshot wounds. She ran the place like a general. She later moved to
Red Cross Children's Hospital where she thrived on the pediatric
work. The love, caring and respect she showed to her co-workers and
patients was returned as people revered "their Doctor Gellman."
Although she was often encouraged by her peers to go into private
practice, her heart belonged to offering her skills to those less
fortunate, and she remained committed to the public system.
Minnie was adventurous and loved travelling, taking a year
she was in her fifties to travel through Europe and the U.K. by
herself. She was passionate about many issues: her family, her
patients, social justice, and interested in a wide-range of
areas-music, books, knitting, sewing, needle point, the environment
and nature. She would describe how wonderful it was, after she got
her first pair of glasses as a child on the farm, to see the stars,
and how she would keep them on at night when falling asleep. She was
very committed to her heritage, and to imparting this to her children
and grandchildren. Above all, Minnie loved learning and had an
insatiable, open-minded thirst for knowledge.
After the death of Jack in 1964, Minnie raised us as single
She engendered in us a love of books. She read to us constantly, and
the house was filled to the rafters with books. She had an
extraordinary ability to balance being a parent with clear
boundaries, yet being a respectful friend. She encouraged us in all
we did. She led by example and discussed issues and reasoned with us
long before this was fashionable.
Minnie had a true moral compass. She knew right from wrong
not scared to speak her mind. She opened our eyes to injustice in
South Africa. When her son was "banned" and house arrested for
political opposition she told him that she was proud of him and that
he should not back down.
As a mother she was, to quote a friend, "inspirational-she
mother everyone wanted: wise, reliable, supportive, and open to all
ideas." Many of our friends confided in her, and she often kept
better contact with them than we did! She supported us to reach our
dreams and potential, and, even if it meant our leaving her, she
provided us with all the help and encouragement needed. She was
always extremely proud of us, and made sure we knew this.
She modelled all she taught us-about how to treat others,
believe in ourselves (teaching us, "never say I can't, always say
I'll try"). Despite being shy, in her own quiet way, she was an
activist who affected change in many lives.
As a grandmother, she was pure love and fiercely protective,
defending her grandchildren when they got into trouble. True to her
passion, she bought her grandchildren books and books. She was the
one to encourage and support us to travel, and now, in recent years,
the strong advocate for her grandchildren travelling.
Despite her many accomplishments, she remained modest, unassuming,
and humble, always insisting on being called "Minnie" and not
"Doctor." In the past few years, as her health and faculties
deteriorated, she carried on bravely, never complaining, remaining
proud, independent and dignified until the end. She fought her final
illness with all her tenacious spirit and amazing strength.
Minnie was a most generous person, who gave to others, not
financially, but with her heart. She never had any expectations of
getting anything back, and was always so appreciative of everything
that was done for her.
We hope that we have been successful in conveying her character-her
passion and her philosophy, her thoughtfulness and her honesty, her
humility and her compassion. As children, we have had an
extraordinary role model in Minnie, as a parent and as a human being.
She has left an indelible impression on so many. Her legacy of
commitment to people will live on.