Vintage slides reveal Toronto doctor’s adventurous spirit

Retired pediatrician Robert H. recently visited our store to digitize his collection of slides taken during the six years he spent working in mission hospitals in Africa during the late 1960s and mid 1970s. We were so intrigued by his photographs that we wanted to know more about the person behind the lens.

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In 1968, Robert was a young doctor interning at Toronto General, where he met Jean, a nurse who worked in the hospital’s emergency room. The two dated for a handful of months but Robert had made a previous commitment to work at a mission hospital in Kenya. 

He says they were at a crossroads.

“We could either get married and go to Africa together or we could go our separate ways,” Robert says. “Well, we got married and two weeks later moved to Kenya.”

Robert and Jean moved to Nairobi a few years later with their two children, Michael and Ann, and also spent three years living in DR Congo.  

Because Robert and Jean worked in mission hospitals, finances were tight.

“We didn’t have a lot of money so we were very careful about what pictures we took,” he says, adding that nowadays he may return from a trip to Africa with more than 1,500 pictures on his DSLR.

The images were taken with an Asahi Pentax using Kodachrome 64 film and his trusty 55mm lens. He says after arriving in Africa, he purchased a 200mm lens, which is used in many of his safari pictures.

Robert notes that at the time, he had to send the slides to England to be developed and sometimes didn’t see the pictures until up to three months later.  

“Some years ago, I had many of my slides digitized by a now-defunct camera store but when I read the information on the Memory Labs website, I thought I could get better results,” he says. “And indeed the quality is much better and I appreciate the larger ‘Save’ files, which I can play around with in Photoshop Elements.”

Robert says he plans to use his digitized images in presentations — “I still do volunteer work” — and to share stories with his friends and family.

In fact, he recently sent some of his digitized collection to his children, their spouses and grandchildren.

“My son said, ‘Dad, did you really make us do all of these things!?’”

 

“This is me looking at a urine sample in our pathology lab, most likely for schistosomiasis (bilharzia), a parasitic disease which was common near Maseno, Kenya. I think I was 24 years old at the time.”

“This is me looking at a urine sample in our pathology lab, most likely for schistosomiasis (bilharzia), a parasitic disease which was common near Maseno, Kenya. I think I was 24 years old at the time.”

 

“My wife Jean, petting our little adopted dog Moshi — Swahili for smoke — and laying on the ground are a couple of neighbour dogs.”

 

“Jean and I were in Kenya for two years and we would go on short safaris. We would take our VW Beetle, camp outside the game park and it was much less expensive. This one is of a cheetah after a kill. Cheetahs are very fast and chase and run down their prey. They have a distinctive black tear marking from the eye to the corner of the mouth. You can see the blood from a gazelle around the mouth.”

 

“Jean and I were driving in our VW Beetle when we saw this elephant, which started snorting and waving its ears. We quickly snapped the photo and drove away before the elephant charged us. Living in Africa, you see many elephants but I had never seen one with huge, overlapping tusks.”

 

“Our two children posing in the backyard of our house in the Congo. Ann would be about 5 and Michael was 7 at the time. Jean sewed their outfits using local fabrics.”

 

“Jean and I in front of the sign of the Maseno Hospital where we worked. I like this one because it reminds me of who we were and what we were like.”

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