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African Women and the
British Health Service





Dr Matilda Johanna Clerk was born on March 3rd, 1916 in Larteh, in the British colony of the Gold Coast (present day Ghana). She was the first Ghanaian woman to earn a post-graduate diploma. Matilda’s Jamaican grandfather Alexander Worthy Clerk was one of 24 West Indians sent by the Swiss Evangelical Missionary Society to establish Presbyterian churches and schools in the Gold Coast. She was dubbed ‘Dux of the school’, the top academic student, by European missionaries at the Aburi All Girls School.¹ In 1932 she enrolled at the elite Achimota School, where Edinburgh University graduate Agnes Yewande Savage taught. Susan Ofori-Atta also attended Achimota at this time. Susan went on to become Ghana's first female doctor.¹

Matilda benefitted from her family's position in Ghanaian society. She worked as a science teacher until her father Nicholas Clerk, an educator and minister of the Presbyterian church, persuaded the British Colonial government to let Matilda take the preliminary course in basic medical science. At the time only male students were allowed to participate. As the only student to pass the examination she won a scholarship to study medicine at Edinburgh University. She attended from 1944 to 1949.² During her time there she was an active member of the Christian Movement and International Club. After qualifying she went on to receive a post-graduate diploma from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Science. Becoming the first Ghanaian and West African Woman to do so.²

She returned to Ghana in 1951. She spent her whole career working in the public health sector. She and Susan Ofori-Atta were both principal medical officers at the Princess Marie Louise Children's Hospital in Accra. Matilda died in 1984. She never married or had children. Her great nephew Nicholas Clerk practices as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in North Wales.¹


  • Georgina Ferry, ‘A Woman's Place: Agnes Yewande Savage, Susan Ofori- Atta and Matilda Clerk: three pioneering doctors’, The Lancet, vol. 392, issue 10161 (2018), p2258-2259

  • Wikipedia, ‘Matilda J Clerk’, (accessed 11 April 2020)

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