Anne Spoerry, humanitarian and doctor to many in Kenya for over 40 years, died in 1999. Many thousands of people walked, drove, and flew in to attend her funeral. But her obituary in the Independent (U.K.) didn’t mention the central event of her life, the one she refused to talk about and that would haunt her until her death.
This story about an adventurous woman is significant because Anne Spoerry’s life and what happened to her was revealing and it made me think about my life and the choices I’ve made.
What would you do to survive ultimate evil and almost-certain death? Would you resist? Would you fight and probably die? Or would you do what you had to, no matter how awful?
I found John Heminway’s book In Full Flight on a library shelf and I was intrigued. It’s the book that started me on my journey to learn about Women Adventurers.
Heminway doesn’t tell Anne’s story in a chronological sequence. Instead he saves the details of what went on when she was in Ravensbrück concentration camp until the very end. I’m including these details in the story where they happened because it helps explain a lot of what she was going through and what she wouldn’t talk about the rest of her life.
Who Was Anne Spoerry?
Anne Spoerry’s life was lived in two distinct parts and places. The first part was in Europe until after the end of World War II. The second part of her life was in Kenya, where she lived from 1948 until her death.
Anne Spoerry was born in 1918 in Cannes, France, of wealthy parents. She was very attached to her older brother Francois who treated her like a brother. They had a close loving relationship throughout their lives. After attending school in London and medical school in Paris, she and Francoise joined the French resistance movement when World War II broke out (she would have been 22 at that time).
What happened at Ravensbrück Prison
Anne was captured and taken to a series of prisons, ending up in Ravensbrück women’s prison. Anne had trained to be a doctor because she wanted to help people and when she first got there she was able to treat patients, giving them medicine and vaccines.
Then she fell under the spell of a woman named Carmen Mory. Mory was probably a sociopath. She cozied up to the guards and did terrible things to other inmates, including deliberately torturing them and murdering them. (Look at her eyes; scary.)
There is some question about exactly what Anne did under Mory’s influence, but it seems she participated in torture and maybe murder.
Anne was called “Dr. Claude” by the other inmates, and Mory had some kind of control over her. After Mory left the camp in January 1945, Anne went back to being helpful and courageous. One inmate remembers that she hid other prisons and helped others escape the gas chamber. (Mory was tried and executed.)
After the war, Anne was tried for her activities at Ravsbruck. One French court found her guilty of impersonating a doctor (she hadn’t finished her medical studies), being a traitor, and “bringing shame on France through inhumane behaviour.” She was exiled from France for 25 years.
Anne’s Life in Kenya
Anne quickly finished her medical studies and left for Africa, settling in Kenya. With some family money, she bought a small farm and started being a doctor and becoming involved in the life of the area, playing polo and hunting. The Kenyans called her Kali Daktari (ferocious doctor) or Mama Daktari.
During her time living in Kenya, Anne stayed by herself much of the time and never would talk about her past, telling everyone who asked, “I won’t talk about that.” She dressed as a man most of the time, only wearing a dress when she had to.
Anne played a small part in the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, mostly in protecting her property and her workers. She refused to leave when other women were ordered to go to safety, and she went on patrols with the men. They felt she was a liability and in one encounter she almost got someone killed.
In the late 1950s, Anne became interested in flying and she saw it as a way to help Kenyans in more remote areas and east African coastal islands. She bought a plane and learned to fly it. The natives started calling her Zulu Tango after the call letters of her plane. In 1963 she was instrumental in forming AMREF “Flying Doctors,” a non-profit that is still active today, providing air ambulance and medical services from East Africa to other locations.
She was deeply loved and many thousands of people walked and rode to her funerals (there were four!) in 1999, at 80. Her beloved brother Francoise had died only a few weeks before her.
Tributes to her work are many. Anthropologist Richard Leakey said,
“She probably saved more lives than any other individual in east Africa – if not the whole continent,”
And Dr. Tom Rees, a founder of the Flying Doctors, said,
“she personally eliminated polio from nearly 100 miles of the Kenyan coast.”
Anne Spoerry: Culprit or Victim?
After Anne’s death, John Heminway met her nephew Bernard Spoerry, who spoke of a strange document, dated 1946, in which Anne was “cited for crimes against humanity, including ‘torture.'” (from an interview in Powell’s book blog). Heminway started investigating and talking to survivors of Ravensbrück.
When Heminway published his findings (detailed in his book), he received hate mail from people who said that only Anne’s life in Africa mattered. He also received the support and encouragement to publish his findings.
There seem to be varying accounts of what Anne did inRavensbrück. The people he talked to were remembering events of that time, but most still had vivid memories. Some aid she participated in several cases of abuse, murder, and attempted murder and that she “became brutal and lived without conscience from the minute she fell under the influence of Carmen Mory.”
One Ravensbrück survivor “publicly applauded Anne’s behavior outside Carmen Mory’s influence” and “strongly condemned her activities in Block 10.”
Another survivor said of Anne:
“Sixty years ago if I had met [Spoerry] in the street, I would have turned my back on her, walked away, and never talked. … [but] if I were to meet Anne now, taking her life into account, I would forgive her. I would embrace her. I would not have done this sixty years ago.”
Heminway, in his Powells interview, says he wanted to complete the book about Anne:
to document the complexity of human character, the lengths one individual took to survive, serving as her own private jury, handing down her own sentence.
In the last chapter of his book, Heminway says,
Even a year after Anne’s death, some of her desert patients continued to gather under thorn trees in hopes Zulu Tango would emerge from a cloud and alight nearby.”
Most of the information for this article came from John Heminway’s book In Full Flight.
I also used several articles, cited in the text.
I wasn’t able to get a free photo of Anne Spoerry, but you can see a tribute to her on the AMREF Flying Doctors Facebook page (October 22, 2015.)
Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.