Gravenberch, Adolf Frederik

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Gravenberch, Adolf Frederik

February 1, 1811
November 16, 1906

Adolf Frederik Gravenberch was born in Suriname and was originally named simply Adolf Frederik. His parents were slaves, and his master lent him to a plantation physician, A. Steglich, from whom he learned a number of medical skills. He acquired even more medical knowledge when after Steglich's death his master allowed him to work in the hospital directed by Dr. George Cornelis Berch Gravenhorst, a leading surgeon and authority on the treatment of leprosy and elephantiasis. Then, in 1847, Gravenhorst helped him buy his freedom and made him an assistant surgeon in the hospital on Gravenstraat. It was in honor of his benefactor that he came to take the name Gravenberch. After Gravenhorst's permanent departure for the Netherlands soon afterwards, Gravenberch set out to pursue a medical career on his own. Toward that end he petitioned King William III for a license to practice medicine, through the colony's governor, O. G. Stuart von Schmidt auf Altenstadt, whom he had met. Despite Gravenberch's lacking the usual formal education and certification by examination, the king responded in 1855 with a royal appointment as a municipal physician in the colony of Suriname. This action was applauded by some, but resented by others, who cited professional standards and his color and slave origins in opposing the appointment.

Gravenberch thereupon set up a hospital in Paramaribo and developed a large practice, including all classes of the urban population, as well as patients drawn from the plantations. He was especially recognized by the black community for providing vital medical advice and treatment, at times free of charge, that they would never otherwise have received because of the prevailing racial attitudes. He also had a successful marriage, with several children, and for a time he prospered financially. He lived in the district of Boven-Commewijne, acquired other buildings in town, and in the late 1850s and early 1860s bought a sugar plantation called La Jaloussie along the Boven-Commewijne River. He also acquired two tracts of forestland, Osembo on the Para River and Libanon on the Saramacca. However, he lost most of his fortune with the fall in sugar prices in the wake of the emancipation of slaves that had occurred in 1863. His financial plight was compounded in 1875, when colonial officials, after having allowed him to extend his practice into the districts, now brought charges against him for crossing the restrictive racial boundaries. With the help of a legal adviser, Colaço Belmonte, he was exonerated, and his request to legally practice in the districts was granted. In 1879 he moved his residence to Paramaribo for the rest of his life. In 1880, thousands of well-wishers joined in the silver jubilee celebration of his career as a physician, and he continued on to celebrate the golden jubilee in 1905.

Gravenberch died in Paramaribo on November 16, 1906, at the age of ninety-five, and he was buried in the Willem Jacobus Rust Cemetery there. Gravenberch's son, Rudolf Johan, also achieved a notable reputation. On March 23, 1908, a petition submitted to Queen Wilhelmina on his behalf requested that he also be licensed to practice medicine. At the time he was an assistant inspector at the slaughterhouse, and for sixteen years he had served as a medic in the military hospital in Paramaribo. He had attended, but not completed, medical school. His petition, initiated by a Surinamer Baptist minister, Carl P. Rier, was launched at a memorial service aimed at keeping alive the humanitarian legacy of his father. While its nearly 3,000 signers eventually included physicians, politicians, clergymen, civil servants, and plantation directors, the petition was not approved. It nevertheless demonstrates that Adolf Frederik Gravenberch's career inspired others to continue the struggle for social justice in Suriname.

See also Free Blacks, 1619-1890


Neck-Yoder, Hilda van. "Surinam's Cultural Memory: of Crown and Knife." CLA Journal 24 (1980): 173183.

Oudschans Dentz, Fred. "Eenige bladzijden uit het leven van Dr. George Cornelis Bergh Gravenhorst." Nederlandsch Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 86 (1942): 14301436.

Rier, C. P. The Biography of Dr. Adolf Frederik Gravenberch, Municipal Physician. Paramaribo, Suriname: C. P. Rier, 1908.

Unpublished translation of De levensgeschiedenis van dr. A. F. Gravenberch by Hilda van Neck-Yoder, found in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

allison blakely (2005)

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Gravenberch, Adolf Frederik

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