It has often been said that the Canary Islands have become
one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations thanks largely to illustrious
British scientists, writers and artists of the 19th century. One of
these was Ernest Abraham Hart. He paid a visit to the island of Tenerife in 1886, when
it was still generously blessed only by natural beauty and had not yet been ravaged by man’s
self-interest.
Ernest Abraham Hart in a painting by Solomon Joseph Solomon 
 
     The son of a Jewish dentist, Hart was born in Knightsbridge
in 1836. He was educated at the City of London School and later became a
student at St George’s Hospital. In 1856 he became a member of the Royal
College of Surgeons, specialising in diseases of the eye. He was appointed
ophthalmic surgeon at St Mary’s hospital at the age of only twenty eight, and held
numerous other positions. He is attributed many advances in ophthalmology
and was also the first British surgeon to be associated with treating aneurisms
of the popliteal artery.

     He betrayed a great passion for journalism. At the age of only twenty two Hart had
already been published in The Lancet and soon became highly
acclaimed for his medical articles. Many years later, as Dean of St. Mary’s
Medical School, he was named Editor of the British Medical Journal.

The Royal College of Surgeons
    By the time he came to the Canaries at the age of fifty, he
was one of the best known ophthalmologists in Britain and was a member of the
Royal College of Surgeons. He was accompanied by Alice, his second wife. Her
philanthropist nature complemented his own interests and she travelled with Hart on
his many overseas expeditions, which he used to gather information for his articles
on foreign medicine.
     Also travelling with Hart to Tenerife was his friend Sir Thomas Spencer
Wells, one of London’s most eminent doctors and surgeon to Queen Victoria.  When their schooner, the Coast anchored in
the bay at Santa Cruz in 1886, their intention was to inspect what they referred to
as the Orotava Grand Hotel and Sanatorium, the original Martianez Hotel in fact, where patients could be cared for as if they were on holiday and not actually hospitalised.  
 

The original Martianez Hotel in Puerto de la Cruz

     However, both Ernest Hart and Sir Thomas were
likeable gentlemen and soon won the affection, not only of British residents in Tenerife,
but also of local people. They were welcomed with open arms by some of the
island’s best known doctors, renowned for their progress in every field, and
Sir Thomas was even persuaded to perform a surgical operation in the Orotava Valley.

Sir Thomas Spencer Wells
 
     As reported in the local press of the times, “Sir Spencer Wells, the Queen of
England’s surgeon, has performed an oophorectomy on young Antonia Dorta, of the
well-known and appreciated island family”
. This had been arranged by Doctor
Jorge Pérez, who had spent many years in London and whom Ernest Hart would later highly recommend as a very well
prepared doctor with excellent English.

     News had been filtering through to British medical circles
for some years that Tenerife possessed one of the finest curative climates in
the world and Hart intended to write an article about the island’s sanitary
arrangements for The British Medical Journal. However, he gathered so much
information that he was able to write a number of papers which were edited
together into the book, A Winter Trip to the Fortunate Islands, a reflection of his journalistic rather than scientific mind.

Publicity bagage label for the Camacho Hotel

     Hart took note of everything. In
Santa Cruz he recommended the old Camacho Hotel, which was mentioned favourably
in all travel booklets of the time. In La Laguna, which he called St.
Christopher of the Lake,
he remarked upon the number of convents and the large
villas used as summer residences by the island’s aristocrats. Hart thought Agua
García one of the most beautiful spots in Tenerife, with its dense forests and gently sloping agricultural fields, but
it was clearly the Orotava Valley they were heading for. In fact, like so
many others before him, Hart fell for the place and on their arrival wrote, “the
bird song, the splashing of the fountains, the huge variety of colourful
flowers, the blue sea, the mountains, the warmth of the day long sun and the
exquisite freshness of the air all tell us that we have arrived safe and happy
to our destination. We will be spending our promising winter holiday in one of the
best gardens in the world, Port Orotava, the pearl of the Fortunate Islands”.

The Orotava Valley
 

     Although Hart’s principal aim was to study local medical
practice, he was also very observant of local traditions and customs. Indeed he
was most complementary about local cuisine, noting especially an eternal
favourite, conejo en salmorejo, goat’s cheese and fried goat. He also pointed
out that one could find a steak as good as anywhere in England.
 

Conejo en salmorejo – rabbit in spicy salmorejo sauce
 

     He also carried out a detailed statistical survey of local
weather conditions in La Orotava and observed “From a medical point of view,
Tenerife is an ideal place for that large number of people suffering from lung
problems”
. He evidently found Tenerife kind on his pocket too because he remarked that
their stay on the island had been the most pleasant and cheapest holiday ever! Ernest
Hart gave Tenerife very good publicity and on the 19th June 1890 the local
newspaper Diario de Tenerife referred to an article of his in the British
Medical Journal in which he wrote so favourably about the weather conditions in
the Valley of La Orotava and about Tenerife’s hotels. One can just imagine Ernest Hart, surrounded by elegantly dressed friends at an Octave, enthusing about the delights of eating rabbit  and wrinkled potatoes on the island of Tenerife. Octaves were dinner parties given by Sir Henry Thompson, Professor of Surgery at University College, London, at his house in Wimpole Street, at which eight courses, accompanied by eight wines were served to eight guests in addition to the host and a guest of honour.

Guest of honour at an Octave dinner party, Ernest Abraham Hart, seated to the right of the mantelpiece
 
     After their winter in Tenerife, Ernest Hart and his wife began
travelling further afield. In Calcutta he was considered brave enough to
criticise Indian medical standards, especially with regards the treatment of
cholera. He was later highly regarded for his studies of both cholera and
typhus. He fell in love with Japan and published a book entitled The Ancient
Arts and Artists of Japan
, helped to a great extent by procuring a large and
valuable collection. His interests were so wide and his intellectual skills so
varied that he even wrote a number of articles on cookery for the Times under
the heading The Doctor in the Kitchen. Sadly, just ten years after enjoying the mild climes of the Canary Islands, the kind doctor required both legs to be
amputated after developing complications related to diabetes. It is perhaps a coincidence that he would have found this disease to be very common in the Canary Islands as a result of a traditional preference for a diet rich in those delicious potatoes and sweet puddings. A year later, at the age of just sixty one, Ernest Abraham Hart died at the typically English resort of Brighton.

By John Reid Young

Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales

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