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David Livingstone - Doctor, Missionary, Explorer

Modern commentators might call David Livingstone a self made man – humble beginnings, a child worker, saving to fund his own education, qualifying as both doctor and missionary, marrying an adventurous wife, travelling through uncharted territories, opposing the slave trade, searching to his death for the source of the Nile...

David Livingstone was born in 1813 in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, in a tenement owned by a mill company; the company first employed David when he was ten years old. One of seven children, the young Livingstone has a strong work ethic and was committed to learning, taking classes after the long working day had ended. Livingstone had a deep spiritual conviction, and as a young adult came to the conclusion that his true path lay in learning the skills of medicine and of the church, thus giving him the tools of a profession that would be useful in missionary work.

Livingstone started his medical training in 1836 in Glasgow at Anderson’s College; he funded his education through monies he had saved whilst working at the mill. After two years of medical training he moved to England to study under the London Missionary Society. In 1840, having increased his medical knowledge through training in London, Livingstone qualified in both medical and religious studies.

Livingstone started his missionary work in South Africa, where he married Mary, daughter of fellow missionary Robert Moffatt, in 1845. Livingstone’s twin loves – medicine and religion – were augmented by another drive – the need to discover more about Africa, both place and people. It was thus hardly surprising that after forays hundreds of miles upcountry he and explorer William Oswell set off in search of a lake on the far side of the Kalahari desert. The explorers found Lake Ngami, and continued their travels into the heart of Africa. Livingstone discovered the Victoria Falls (which he named after Queen Victoria) in 1855, and the following year he returned to Britain to be reunited with his wife and children who had left Africa several years before due to the toll the rigours of the country had placed on Mary’s health.

David Livingstone had been bitten by the exploration bug too strongly to be held to the shores of Britain. He had government backing for his exploration of the Zambezi river; although Mary joined him for parts of this expedition her health was failing and she died in 1862, having given birth to six children, one of whom died when only six weeks old. After his wife’s death Livingstone continued to travel, and developed a new focus – tracking down the source of the Nile. It was during these explorations that H M Stanley tracked him down, greeting him with the ever memorable words Doctor Livingstone, I presume? The two men travelled together awhile, and less than a year later, in 1873, David Livingstone died in Africa which for long had been his spiritual home. Yet his body was rescued by the British and the following year was buried in Westminster Abbey – a sign of the respect both earned and given to the Scottish doctor, explorer and missionary whose vision and belief took him half a world away from the Blantyre tenement of his birth.



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