Ophthalmologist Erika Sutter, a pioneer in health development work, died at age 98

Erika Sutter 1917-2015

Erika Sutter was born in 1917 in Basel, Switzerland. She studied science in the University of Basel, finishing with a doctorate in 1943. For some years, she did research in plant physiology in Basel and in Sweden. However, when she was growing up she was influenced by the ideas of Christian Socialism inspired by Leonhard Ragaz, and she wanted to find a more direct way of being of service to others. In 1952, she joined a French-speaking Swiss Protestant missionary society, and after a short period of learning the necessary specialised techniques, she went to South Africa to take responsibility for the laboratory in Elim Hospital, in an impoverished rural area that was then the North Transvaal. In 1956, with the encouragement of the Mission, she decided to study Medicine in the University of Witwatersrand. After her first degree, she specialised in Ophthalmology. Finally, in 1965, she returned to Elim Hospital, where she was in charge of the Eye Department until she retired in 1984.


The Eye Department of Elim Hospital was the main provider of eye care for about 2 million people. During the period when Erika Sutter was in charge, from 1965 – 1984, she initiated new developments in the hospital, including a training school for Ophthalmic Nurses. She had always been concerned to train her South African assistants to work independently, and she trained her specialist nurses to do routine tasks, including cataract operations, and first consultations in outlying clinics. This was a project very close to her heart.


Erika was also concerned with work outside the hospital. One of the prevalent eye diseases in the area was trachoma, caused by bacterial infection, which leads progressively to blindness in older people. An epidemiological study led her to the conclusion that a major reservoir of infection was among small children. The infection could be controlled by relatively simple measures, like using individual face-cloths to reduce person-to-person infection, and burying rubbish to reduce the flies that also transmit the disease.


Control measures against trachoma could only be put into practice by the childrens' mothers. Erika started to visit villages together with staff from the hospital. At first, their rather formal teaching style did not arouse much interest among the women. Selina Maphorogo, who went as the interpreter, realised that they needed a new approach, beginning with listening to the village women, and then suggesting gradual changes. Erika was willing to listen to her junior colleague, and together they founded a movement that proved to be extremely effective, with groups of women in many villages, who soon decided to call themselves "Care Groups". The prevalence of trachoma was reduced rapidly, but the women were still full of enthusiasm to work together improve health in their villages, and started new activities, like attacking the problem of malnutrition by planting vegetable gardens. The movement has been remarkably sustainable – after more than 30 years there are still groups in hundreds of villages in what is now Limpopo Province, and they adapt to new needs like the care of AIDS orphans, and support for people living with HIV/AIDS.


Erika Sutter's work was honoured by several awards, including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Basel, and the award, "Woman of the Year" from the liberal South African newspaper, "The Star". She returned from South Africa to Basel in 1984, to an extremely active retirement. She taught courses on Community Eye Health both in the (then) Swiss Tropical Institute and in the International Centre for Eye Health in London. She also handed on her experience in books. "Hanyane, a Community struggles for Eye Health", was designed for village health workers. "The Community is my University" written together with Selina Maphorogo, describes the development of the Care Group movement.


Besides her professional activities, Erika was also active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the local church, and kept in touch with friends and colleagues in South Africa as well as her friends and family in Europe. Up to the end of her life, she lived independently in a flat with a wide view and with two balconies, on which she grew an amazing variety of plants – her interest in Botany had never left her! She was able to celebrate her 98th birthday with a party that included Selina Maphorogo and two of her grown-up children. A few weeks later, after a fall and a short stay in hospital, she died peacefully on August 20th 2015.  (Jennifer Jenkins, September 9, 2015)