Louis Leipoldt was born in Worcester,on the 28 December 1880 and died in Cape Town on 12 April 1947. Physician, poet and author, Louis was the fourth child of Christiaan Friedrich Leipoldt (Died: 11 November 1911), a Rhenish missionary and N.G. Kerk minister, and his wife Anna Meta Christiana Esselen (Died: 24 December 1903), the daughter of the Rev. Louis F. Esselen, a Rhenish missionary was born in Adderley Street,Worcester where he lived with his parents until he was four years old. His maternal grandfather gave Leipoldt his first lessons in reading and writing, guided his general education and exerted great influence on him during his formative years. His paternal grandfather, J. G. Lepoldt, was a Rhenish missionary at Ebenhaezer on the Olifants River and at Wuppertal. Leipoldt’s father was also a missionary, first in Sumatra and from 1879 at Worcester. In 1883, however, he became an N.G. Kerk minister and settled in 1884 at Clanwilliam in the N.G. parsonage in Park Street.
The relationship existing among the members of the Leipoldt family was not a happy one, while Leipoldt’s relations with his mother were decidedly unhappy. However, he held his father in high esteem and greatly respected him.
An intellectually gifted child, Leipoldt received an exceptionally good grounding at home in the natural sciences, history, geography, languages (Greek, Latin, French), literature and Eastern religious conceptions. His father had an extensive library and gave Leipoldt informal instruction and guided him towards independent study by teaching him to consult source material and to solve problems on his own. This laid the foundation for his independent trend of thought in later years. His curiosity and spirit of investigation also manifested themselves in later life in his diversity of interests apart from literature: in education, the supernatural, in politics, psychology, philosophy, history, botany and in the culinary art. Even as a child his general knowledge was exceptional.
Leipoldt’s three home languages were English, German and Dutch. As a child he was able to read the language of the Malays. At a very early age he read a great deal, evinced a thirst for knowledge, a great capacity for work and an astonishing memory. He read the works of Dante, Bunyan, Milton, Racine and Scott, and before he was ten years old he knew long passages from the works of some of these authors. English became the language he used for journalism, while his poetry, prose and plays were written mainly in Afrikaans, although he began by writing his poetry in English.
Leipoldt’s childhood days were not happy. As his mother prevented his association with other children, he led a very lonely life in Clanwilliam. He remained at home until he had passed his matriculation examination. Two trips to Cape Town (1886 and 1890) made a deep impression on him. Although he attested to his unhappy life right to the end, nevertheless some of his poems reveal the intense joy which as a child he experienced in nature.
As an artist Leipoldt developed at an early age. His father encouraged him to read literary works and made him write essays which he criticized. This encouraged the artistic qualities dormant in him. From his sixth year he corresponded with his grandfather Esselen and this first conscious setting down of his observations trained him in the art of writing. Because of his loneliness he, even before his eighth year, created imaginary playmates in his writings. Throughout his life he continued to converse with himself in his poems, especially in his “Slampamperliedjies” (vagabond songs).
As the age of eight he wrote a tragedy inspired by Van Limburg Brouwer’s Akbar. Between the ages of ten and twelve he earned his first money with stories, which were published in the London Boy’s Own Paper and The Cape Argus, as well as with journalistic literature in The Cape Times, Cape Monthly Magazine and Scientific African. His creative and journalistic work during these early days was thus combined. At the age of fourteen he became a reporter for The Cape Times in the North-Western Cape. During these early years he also furnished news items for Johannesburg and Bloemfontein newspapers. He was helped with his poetry by an English minister, the Rev. C. D. Roberts, who also wrote poetry.
Leipoldt’s love for botany was awakened early in his life. In his twelfth year he met the well-known German botanist Rudolph Schlechter collecting plants in the veld outside Clanwilliam. Schlechter invited Leipoldt to accompany him on his trip by ox-waggon to Namaqualand. He later also became friendly with other well-known botanists such as Peter MacOwan, Harry Bolus and Rudolph Marloth.
Journalism was Leipoldt’s first profession. In 1896 he wrote to The Cape Times on the colour question, which gave rise to a violent controversy and F. S. Malan the editor of Ons Land devoted a leader to it. In 1898 Leipoldt published a number of sketches on Clanwilliam in the Cape Industrial Magazine. He also matriculated in that year. As the life in Clanwilliam was too confining for his budding genius, he moved to the Cape where he became a journalist for De Kolonist. Before his twentieth year he was already a contributor to several leading newspapers abroad. When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out Leipoldt was unable to reconcile himself with the pro-Rhodes sentiment of De Kolonist and Het Dagblad and became the Dutch correspondent for the pro-Boer newspaper the South African News, which sent him to the North-eastern front. He also wrote communiques on the war for overseas newspapers such as the M anchester Guardian and Daily Express (England), Het Nieuws van de Dag en De Telegraaf (Holland), Petit Bleu (Belgium), the Hamburger Neueste Nachrichten (Germany), the Chicago Record and the Boston Post (U.S.A.). During the war Leipoldt travelled about a great deal in the Cape Colony as a shorthand recorder for the circuit court, and in 1900-01 he attended the court sessions dealing with Cape rebels. During this period he wrote a number of poems which appeared later in his first volume of poetry, such as ‘Oom Gert vertel’, which originated in Dordrecht in 1901, based on incidents related to him by an old man shortly after the engagement at Labuschagnesnek. His first published verses were war poems which appeared during the war in English in the pro-Boer New Age. In 1900 he published two sketches ‘De Rebel’ and in 1901 ‘Bambinellino’ in the Dutch art publication Elesevier’s Geïllustreerd Maandschrift . They were written in Dutch but with an Afrikaans dialogue. It was the first belletristic contribution by an Afrikaans author to a Dutch paper. ‘De Rebel’ was the forerunner of the poem ‘Oom Gert Vertel’.
At the end of 1899 the editor of the South African News was imprisoned under martial law and the nineteen-year-old Leipoldt became editor until October 1901, when the paper was temporarily suspended under martial law. Leipoldt refused an offer from a Rhodesian newspaper and in 1902 went abroad. He travelled through Holland, Belgium, France and Spain as a reporter for the Manchester Guardian. In 1903 he enrolled at Guy’s Hospital, London, as a medical student but continued with his journalism, writing for English and American papers. In addition he attended lectures on law, and on occasion he travelled to the Netherlands to interview Pres. S. J. P. Kruger in Utrecht on behalf of the British press. In 1904 he became the editor of Sir Henry Burdett’s The Hospital, travelling to Europe and America to collect in-formation about hospitals. He also edited School Hygiene, the official publication of British school physicians.
In 1907 Leipoldt completed his medical studies, being awarded the gold medal for surgery as well as for medicine. He became a houseman at Guy’s hospital and furthered his studies in orthopaedics and children’s diseases in Berlin, Bologna, Vienna and Graz. In 1909 he went on a six-month luxury yachting excursion along the coast of America as personal physician to the eleven-year old son of the millionaire press-magnate, Joseph Pulitzer. In the U.S.A. he visited orthopaedic centres. In 1909 he received the F.R.C.S. in London and again travelled to France, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1909 his first book appeared: The ideal graduate study institution: what Germany has done (London, 1909). Between 1910 -11 he was attached to the large children’s hospital in Chelsea, London, and to the German hospital at Dalston. At this time he published his first book on nutrition and diet: Common sense dietetics (London, 1911), an adaptation of which he issued a quarter of a century later entitled The belly-book or diner’s guide (London, 1936).
He became a school doctor, first in south London and then in Hampstead, and in this capacity he frequently travelled to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and the U.S.A. In January 1912 for health reasons he accepted the post of ship’s doctor in the Ulysses, on its voyage from England to the Dutch East-Indies, where he visited Java, Sumatra and Borneo. In June 1912 he returned, resumed his work in Hampstead and wrote a manual entitled The school nurse: her duties and responsibilities (London, 1912). While in London Leipoldt studied for and obtained various diplomas in cookery. Throughout his life he was interested in the culinary art and is known for his Kos vir die kenner (Cape Town, 1933). During the war in the Balkans (1912 -13) he again acted as war correspondent, for the allies, the Bulgarians, Roumanians, Servians and Greeks in their struggle against Turkey, but as a physician he on occasion even tended wounded Turks and as a mark of gratitude the University of Constantinople conferred an honorary degree on him.
Leipoldt’s poetical talent flourished during the years that he spent overseas, but as a poet he still felt the indelible effect of the Second Anglo-Boer War. In 1910 his friend J. J. Smith helped him in London with the editing of his first volume of poems, Oom Gert vertel en ander gedigte (Cape Town, 1911). It consisted of poems which dated from 1896 and is one of the most important volumes of early Afrikaans poetry. Together with J. F. Celliers and Totius (J. D. du Toit), whose volumes of poems appeared more or less simultaneously, he became known as one of the ‘Driemanskap’. The poems included in Leipoldt’s first volume are written in a magnificent colloquial Afrikaans bearing the characteristic Afrikaans and South African stamp; the volume has also some of the finest Afrikaans war poems. The poem which also furnishes the title of the volume is a dramatic monologue and Oom Gert is regarded as the first vital character in Afrikaans literature. This volume also contains brilliant nature poems and illustrates Leipoldt’s interest in the child, both in his role as a physician and later as a foster father.
Leipoldt in his role of the child’s friend reveals himself at an early stage in his other literary works. One of his most attractive stories entitled ‘Die weeskindjie wat ‘n moeder wou hê’, appeared in 1914 in Die Brandwag.
In 1914 Leipoldt returned to South Africa, and in April of the same year he became chief medical inspector of schools in the Transvaal, the first post of its kind in South Africa. When the First World War broke out in August, Gen. Louis Botha commandeered him for service in the Department of Defence. Later on he accompanied Botha as his personal physician, but in June 1915 he resumed his duties as school medical inspector.
In the meanwhile Leipoldt continued his work as a creative artist, and in this year revealed his ability as a dramatist. His first published play, Die Laspos, a one-act play which appeared on 25 May 1919 in Die Brandwag, was followed in 1920 by his second volume of poems Dingaansdag (Pretoria, 1920) which did not attain the high standard of the first. It dealt with the Great Trek and the Afrikaner nation during the First World War and the Rebellion. In his first volume the poet had sympathised and associated himself with the suffering and fortunes of his people, but in the new volume his political sentiments had undergone a change. Shortly afterwards a third volume of poems entitled Uit drie wêrelddele was published in Cape Town in 1923, and these poems were a great improvement on those of the previous volume. Some of them were written in England and others in the East Indies. Three of the best known poems in this volume are ‘By die vlei’, ‘Die man met die helm’, and ‘Grys-blou butte’, depicting a lonely man advanced in years. In ‘Droom en doen’ Leipoldt endeavours to forget the Second Anglo-Boer War and sallies forth to meet a new future. The poet who was so indignant about the war in Oom Gert vertel en ander gedigte now sought conciliation. He also revealed a strong cosmopolitan outlook.
Leipoldt evinced a strong interest in the East, its religion, customs, inhabitants and scenery, as is illustrated by his journey to the Orient (1912) and his poems on the East Uit Drie wêrelddele and Uit my Oosterse dagboek (Cape Town, 1932). His art was permeated by his interest in the exotic, the strange and extraordinary, the supernatural, the problem of death, the here-after, and in abnormal and deviate characters. Whereas Leipoldt had always been a man of sober, sound judgement in the scientific field, in journalism and in his everyday relationship with people, in the sphere of art he tended to be swayed by emotion.
In 1916 he assisted with the medical inspection of schools in Natal and in 1919 in the Cape. As a medical inspector of schools he did much for school tours, school holiday camps and convalescent homes for ailing children. His love of teaching was not only clearly discernible in his medical work but also came to the fore in various writings, such as Praatjies met die oumense (Pretoria, 1918), in which he proffered a miscellany of advice to parents on educational, medical and other topics. In 1919 Leipoldt and Dr Anne Cleaver established a school clinic in Johannesburg, the first of its kind in South Africa, and in the following year he published Die Afrikaanse kind in siekte en gesondheid (Cape Town, 1920). Among his best-known books for children are the educational Praatjies met die kinders (Pretoria, 1920), Stories vir kinders (Cape Town, 1922) en Kampstories (Pretoria, 1923), which appeared at a time when there was comparatively little in the way of Afrikaans reading matter for children.
During the time that Leipoldt was living in Pretoria in the capacity of medical inspector of schools he was also a regular contributor to Die Brandwag . He edited the Transvaal Medical Times and published poems and popular science articles in periodicals and newspapers such as De Goede Hoop, Ons Moedertaal, Die Boervrou, Die Volkstem and Die Huisgenoot. In Pretoria he became friendly with Dr F. V. Engelenburg, the editor of De Volkstem. In 1922 Leipoldt joined the editorial staff of the newspaper and in 1923 became its assistant-editor. However, he could not agree with Gustav S. Preller who succeeded Engelenburg in 1924 and was dismissed in 1925, butLeipoldt continued to write the column ‘Oom Gert se diwigasies’ for the paper until 9 December 1931.
In the early twenties Leipoldt published his greatest dramatic work entitled Die heks (Cape Town, 1923), which he had commenced writing in English during the years 1910-11 while in London. It was rewritten in Afrikaans in 1914 prior to his return to South Africa and he continued working on it until it was published in 1923. Even today it is regarded as one of the most important Afrikaans dramatic works and established Leipoldt as one of the pioneers in this field.
In the 1924 general election he stood as a candidate for the South African Party in the Wonderboom constituency, but was defeated. In April 1925 he again moved to Cape Town to set up practice as a child specialist, and spent some of his happiest years there until his death. Leipoldt cherished a deep affection for Cape Town with its scenic beauty and historical associations with the past.
Leipoldt opened his home ‘Arbury’ in Kenilworth to underprivileged boys who resided with him as his foster children. He legally adopted one boy, Jeffrey Leipoldt. In 1928 he accompanied a group of school children on a two-month holiday tour to England.
In Cape Town Leipoldt wrote medical articles for The Cape Argus. In 1926 he became secretary of the Medical Council of South Africa and editor of the South African Medical Journal, and also acted as a part-time lecturer on children’s diseases at the University of Cape Town (1926 -39). In 1939 he became part-time secretary of the South African Medical Council, travelled throughout the country and attended congresses and meetings. In 1934 an honorary D.Litt. degree was conferred on him by the University of the Witwatersrand.
From the thirties onwards Leipoldt showed a growing interest in his literary work, and these years proved particularly rewarding for him as an artist. Die laaste aand (Cape Town, 1930) was the first Afrikaans play ever written in verse form, although he had begun working on it as early as 1915. It is one of his best works, for which together with Die heks he was awarded the Hertzog prize in 1944. Die Bergtragedie (Cape Town, 1932), a long poem on which he had begun working before 1900 (originally in English), is not of a high standard although Leipoldt considered it good. A volume of poems entitled Skoonheidstroos (Cape Town, 1932), appeared at this time and included poems written during the period 1923-32. This work was also awarded the Hertzog prize and contains a number of Leipoldt’s loveliest poems, such as ‘n Kersnaggebed’, although it never achieved the heights attained by Oom Gert vertel en ander gedigte. At the beginning of the thirties a number of less successful works appeared: Afgode (1931), Die Kwaksalwer (1931) and Onrus (1931). Apart from these dramatic works Leipoldt also published three one-act plays: Jannie (1919), ‘n Vergissing (1927) en Die byl (1950).
His prose works were chiefly a product of the thirties. The first to appear was Waar spoke speel (Cape Town, 1927); it was followed by Wat agter lê en ander verhale (Cape Town, 1930); a long psychological novel: Die donker huis (Cape Town, 1931); and a lengthy historical novel set in the period shortly after the Great Trek: Galgsalmander (Cape Town, 1932). Die moord op Muizenberg (Cape Town, 1932) is a detective novel. Die rooi rotte (Cape Town, 1932) is a book of short stories. Uit my oorsese dagboek (Cape Town, 1932) is an absorbing travel book. Die verbrande lyk (Cape Town, 1934) is another detective story. Die dwergvroutjie (Cape Town, 1937), is a psychological story and was originally written in English. Bushveld doctor (London, 1937) is a well-written autobiography. This was followed in 1939 by Die Moord in die bosveld (Cape Town, 1939). In his prose works, which consist mainly of murder and detective stories, Leipoldt’s preoccupation with the abnormal in psychology, and with the supernatural and the mysterious comes to the fore. His prose works never attain tLeipoldthe heights achieved in his plays and poetry, yet he possesses a flowing and absorbing narrative style; and although it was small, he undoubtedly had a share in the development of Afrikaans prose. During these years he also wrote stories for children: Paddastories vir die peetkind (1934), Die wonderlike klok, Die mossie wat wou ryk word (1931) en Die goue eier (1937). He also published popular science fiction for children as exemplified in As die natuur gesels (two volumes, Cape Town, 1928, 1931).
Apart from his creative work during the thirties he published a number of works such as Medicine and faith (London, 1935) and various historical works based on secondary source material: firstly, Jan van Riebeeck: a biographical study (London, 1936), of which a German translation also appeared : Holland gründet die Kapkolonie: Jan van Riebeeck Leben and Werke (Leipzig, 1937). There is also an Afrikaans version entitled Jan van Riebeeck: die grondlegger van ‘n blanke Suid-Afrika (Cape Town, 1938). Leipoldt had begun to collect the material for his biography as early as 1896. The most significant facts about the Voortrekkers were summarised by him for young people in Die groot trek (Cape Town, 1938), which coincided with the Voortrekker centenary. During the Huguenot jubilee year he also published Die Hugenote (Cape Town, 1939). After his period of office as secretary of the South African Medical Council and editor of the council’s journal had ended in 1944, he devoted himself mainly to journalism and to acquiring information for a biography on Pres. S. J. P. Kruger which he had begun in 1906 but never completed. In his poetry and plays Leipoldt also showed an interest in historical characters such as Wolraad Woltemade, Pieter Gijsbert Noodt and other figures like De Lesseps and Multatuli.
When the Second World War broke out Leipoldt favoured South African participation. He wrote sonnets on the war for The Cape Times, the Forum, Die Volkstem, en De Stoep, a Curacao newspaper.
Leipoldt died shortly after the war of a heart complaint caused by rheumatic fever which he had contracted at the age of seven. The casket containing his ashes was interred at the entrance of a cave surrounded by boulders in the rocky country of the Pakhuispas near Clanwilliam, that countryside which he had loved so deeply, a short distance from the Clanwilliam-Calvinia road near Kliphuis. It is a picturesque part of the country where he roamed as a child. After his death three volumes of his poems were published: Die moormansgat en ander verhalende en natuurverse (Cape Town, 1948); Gesëende skaduwees (Cape Town, 1949) which contained poems written during the period 1910 to 1947; and The ballad of Dick King and other poems (Cape Town, 1949), Leipoldt’s only volume of English poems. This contains verses written at the time of the Second World War and also older poems, some even dating from his youth. They appeared under the name Pheidippides, a pseudonym whichLeipoldt had used in newspapers when publishing his English poems on the Second World War.
After Leipoldt’s death, 300 years of Cape Wine (Cape Town, 1952) and Polfyntjies vir die proe (Cape Town, 1963) also appeared, compiled from particularly absorbing articles written under the pseudonym K. A. it. Bonade in Die Huisgenoot (1942-7). His valuable collection of cookery books and his manuscripts of recipes are in the S.A. Library, Cape Town.
The University of Cape Town has a valuable and comprehensive collection of Leipoldt’s letters, manuscripts and journalistic work, as well as books which he donated to the library, such as the comparatively unknown poems which he wrote for the University of Cape Town Quarterly in the thirties.
Biographical information written by Leipoldtand published in Die Huisgenoot, include ‘Clanwilliam: herinneringe aan ‘n ou dorpie’ (5 November 1926), ‘Eerste skoffies’ (1 December 1933), ‘Oor my eie werk’ (6 December 1940), ‘Jeugherinneringe’ (9 May 1947) and ‘My jubileumjaar’ (17 January 1947). His ‘Outobiografiese fragment’ appeared post-humously in Standpunte (18 December 1950). He never succeeded in carrying out his resolution to write an autobiography.
Leipoldt’s literary output constitutes only a part of his rich, versatile life, and yet it represents one of his greatest contributions to South Africa. Remarkably diverse in nature, his works include articles on popular science, journalistic work, translations, and numerous volumes of poetry, plays, novels, short stories and travel reminiscences. The quality of his work is not uniform and his poems frequently lack finish; nevertheless he is still one of the greatest Afrikaans poets and dramatists.
Leipoldt, who from childhood had received a strongly English-orientated education, enjoyed moving in English circles and during his later years spent most of his time among the English-speaking section. As a poet, although he wrote typically Afrikaans poetry and transformed the then unmoulded literary Afrikaans of the early twenties into an elevated medium for poetry, later he tended to ridicule the Afrikaner, the typically Afrikaans characteristics, and the Afrikaans language which he had employed so skillfully as a writer. He even spoke disparagingly of his war poems, describing them as a product of youthful immaturity. He had always been opposed to the Afrikaans-Calvinistic viewpoint, although he frequently employed Christian sentiments in his poems and was without difficulty able to identify himself with the aspirations of the Afrikaner. The English press devoted a good deal of space to Leipoldt in their columns at the time of his death; nevertheless, his passing was felt most keenly by the Afrikaans-speaking section and his memory remains indelibly imprinted among the Afrikaner people. There are two facets discernible in Leipoldt’s character: on the one hand his astounding versatility, his ability to contend with a number of interests simultaneously, and on the other the picture of a person of many conflicting emotions.
Although Leipoldt confessed to being lonely, he had a wide and influential circle of friends and acquaintances, including Gen. J. C. Smuts, Dr Engelenburg, Prof. P. D. Hahn, John X. Merriman, the Roman Catholic priest F. C. Kolbe, Prof. P. MacOwan, Dr Rudolph Marloth, Marcus Viljoen and Dr Harry Bolus. It was Dr. Bolus who encouraged Leipoldt’s love of nature, made him conscious of the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and provided him with financial backing when he went overseas in 1902. Abroad Leipoldt made the acquaintance of Pres. S. J. P. Kruger, Dr W. J. Leyds and Ramsay Macdonald. Leipoldt also numbered Cecil John Rhodes and a few prominent women among his acquaintances. Although he never married and on occasion made odd pronouncements about women and also wrote little love poetry, he was known for his conspicuous gallantry towards ladies and there are agreeable female characters in his poetry, in “Die heks” and in “Van Noot se laaste aand”.
In his poetry Leipoldt created an impression of strong individualism and detachedness, yet he contrived to serve his fellowmen in public life in many spheres: as a physician, as a journalist and as a lover of children.
There is a statue of Leipoldt in plaster of Paris by Florencio Cuairan in the Jagger Library of the Cape Town University, and one in bronze in the public library, Clanwilliam, and in the Medical Centre, Wale Street, Cape Town. Photographs taken at different stages in his life appear in Burgers (infra).
Source: Dictionary of South African Biography (Volume II)