Duff, David (1883–1959), doctor, barrister and colonial civil servant, was born on 11 April 1883 in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, one of ten children of John Duff, the secretary of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway, and his wife Anne Marie (née Elkins). Educated at the Model School and at Portora Royal School, both in Enniskillen, where he won many prizes, David entered TCD in 1901 to study classics, having won the second junior exhibition that year. He had a distinguished academic record, becoming a senior exhibitioner (1903), a scholar in classics (1904), and graduating BA and senior moderator in classics (1905). He had already decided to enter the medical school, where his academic progress was equally outstanding. In 1909 he graduated with the medical degrees BAO, B.Ch., MB, having come joint first in medicine and in surgery, in both having 'passed on high marks'.
Duff then made a number of voyages to west Africa as a ship's doctor with the Elder Dempster Lines, and in the summer of 1910 joined the West African Medical Service in the Gold Coast (Ghana) as a medical officer, enrolling in the London School of Tropical Medicine for a diploma in tropical medicine (DTM). He did not complete the course because he was one of a number of young doctors ordered by the Colonial Office to proceed to the Gold Coast to assist in combating an outbreak of yellow fever at Sekondi, then the main port of the Gold Coast. The outbreak had been brought under control by the time of their arrival, and Duff returned to the London School for the May–July 1911 session, and duly obtained his DTM.
Apart from yellow fever, other widespread and dangerous infectious diseases during Duff's thirty years in the Gold Coast were malaria, smallpox, sleeping sickness, yaws (a skin disease) and plague. His brother Charles (qv) wrote that on one occasion some years before he retired, David, despite the risk to his life, allowed himself to be injected with a new yellow fever serum just to see how it worked on humans. Fortunately, although he developed mild yellow fever, he recovered in a few weeks.
Duff served in remote stations where medical officers were often required to fulfil the duties of a district commissioner when the latter was unavailable for any reason. In his early years Duff acted as the district commissioner on several occasions, notably between March and October 1915, dividing his time each day between his medical duties and the duties of a district commissioner, such acting as a magistrate, collecting taxes, supervising the construction of new roads, dealing with problems relating to the recruitment of local troops, and other miscellaneous matters.
Whilst he was returning to the UK on leave in January 1916 on board the RMS Appam, the ship was captured by the Imperial German Navy auxiliary cruiser and merchant raider SMS Möwe (Seagull), and the ship and captured passengers taken to Newport News, Virginia, where the passengers were discharged. Having returned to the UK on another ship, shortly afterwards David was in Dublin with his brother Charles on the morning of the first day of the Easter rebellion, when they were advised to avoid the city centre by an armed Irish Volunteer.
During his career, Duff continued to acquire additional medical skills, obtaining his DPH (Diploma in Public Health) from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1914, and his MD at TCD in 1918. Not content with this, in 1927 he was called to the English bar by Gray's Inn. Throughout his service he devoted considerable time and effort to improve sanitation, a major problem in the persistence of disease in the colony, and which was for many years the subject of sustained efforts by the government through the Medical and Sanitary Service to reduce the dangers to public health because of poor hygiene and sanitation in towns and villages. Duff studied some branches of engineering for that reason.
He was determined to communicate with the African population in their own languages, and was proficient in Fante and Hausa, being an examiner in both, and in 1917 he was recorded as interpreting in Twi. Charles wrote after his brother's death that David could speak five native African languages.
Medical officers in the Gold Coast were permitted to engage in private practice, at least until they were promoted, and it seems Duff did so. Such was his ability that in the late 1920s he rapidly rose in the Gold Coast Medical Service, becoming deputy director in 1931 and director in 1932. He served as director until his retirement in 1939, being made a CMG in 1935. As director, he was a member of the legislative council, which assisted the governor in the administration of the colony.
'Retrenchment' in the 1930s due to the effect of the world depression on exports, and hence on public revenues, led to significant budgetary cuts for medical services, and no doubt Duff would have liked to do much more than was possible at the time. In 1934 in his annual report he pointed out that the reduction in money and sanitary staff led to a rise in death rates for Africans and Europeans alike. In 1937 he took to the radio to urge the population to take steps to improve sanitation and so reduce the danger of yellow fever. In the same year he noted the sanitary deterioration of Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast, and forecast an increase of enteric fevers, a prediction apparently borne out by a considerable growth throughout the colony when it was noted in 1955 that sanitary organisation still left much to be desired.
As deputy director and director, Duff did much to reduce the obstacles in the way of Africans who wished to qualify, and later serve, as medical staff, and there can be no doubt that he was held in affection by his African medical staff, who presented him with an illuminated address on his retirement, and by the African population. In 1997 it was noted that in Ada-Prampram there was still a park named after him by the Africans, and when he retired the Gold Coast Youth Conference requested the government to name the recently built African Hospital at Cape Coast after him, recounting the important changes he supervised in the 1930s with the establishment of medical and dental scholarships, village dispensaries, midwifery services, and, above all, the role he played in creating opportunities for the employment of African medical officers. However, while the government noted the resolution with pleasure, the request was turned down because '… it was against government practice to name buildings erected entirely from government funds after serving or retired officers' (Addae, 221).
With the onset of the second world war, David Duff, although retired, was appointed principal medical officer of health (infectious diseases) for the western region of England, a post that initially involved him in looking after pregnant women and delivering babies. When the war ended, he retired again to live in Co. Kerry, where he learned Irish and continued his lifetime practice of taking a Greek newspaper. He died aged 76 at his home at Ballinagroun, Annascaul, Co. Kerry, on 27 September 1959.
He married (4 June 1940) Winifred Anastasia Courtenay in Bristol. She died on 11 June 1953, and he married secondly her half-sister Nora Elizabeth Harding, who survived him. There were no children of either marriage.