Book Review: “Memories and Medicine in East Arnhem Land” by Dr Paul Mercer

Reviewed by Dr Owen Lewis


From Luke’s Journal May 2023  |  Vol.28 No.2  |  Unity in Diversity 

This is a little book of stories drawn from family photos and reports from Paul Mercer’s father. John Mercer, a carpenter with polio affecting his legs, was called to mission in 1951.

He, and later his wife, Phyllis, served until 1964 in Numbulwar, Groote, and Darwin. Paul and his brother were born and raised during this time. Paul has returned several times and has reflected on his memories and his own call to General Practice in Brisbane.

Mercer parallels the heroic, pioneering, missionary history of not-that-long ago, with accounts of indigenous leaders and personalities that are dear to the Mercer family. These include Yulki, Paul’s nanny, who later became the first indigenous priest in the Northern Territory in 2009.

It is also an account of how indigenous people in East Arnhem transitioned from traditional hunter-gatherer bark hut times towards modern mainstream life.

As a carpenter, John Mercer set up a sawmill and built houses that would withstand the wet season whilst Phyllis taught school. Both of them were instrumental in God’s bringing people to faith.

The story of the building of the boat Yedikba is another illustration of salvation, bringing supplies to an extremely isolated location. There is a tragedy in the drowning of a missionary during an epileptic fit. There is wonder and rejoicing as the first airstrip is cleared and Phyllis makes the trip to Darwin bringing back baby Paul.

“The medicine aspect of the book recalls the early use of penicillin injections and polio vaccines. Malaria, leprosy, and yaws were issues the Mercer family experienced firsthand.”

The medicine aspect of the book recalls the early use of penicillin injections and polio vaccines. Malaria, leprosy, and yaws were issues the Mercer family experienced firsthand. We are reminded just how vulnerable isolated communities with very limited health resources were back then.

However, although we have come a long way, there still remain huge health disparities. An interesting account of indigenous health beliefs is based on what Paul calls a porous worldview. Evidence for the causes of illness includes influences of God, spirits, and social and physical aspects.

While physical issues are the cause of simple illnesses, more serious conditions have very strong spiritual associations. When reflecting on Closing the Gap progress, Paul does not focus on clashing world views but on language preservation.

A focus on Closing the Gap targets deserves to be shared. Paul chooses some of them in which he observed positive impacts on his trips back to East Arnhem:

  1. Life expectancy
  2. Healthy birth weight
  3. Pre-school programs
  4. Children developmentally on track.
  5. Employment
  6. Appropriate housing
  7. Adult incarcerations rates
  8. Relationship with land and waters
  9. Language preservation.

Both Paul’s upbringing and coming to faith through the visit of the African evangelist Festo Kivengere, no doubt gave early shape to his GP career and leadership in the RACGP. He was instrumental in bringing an indigenous focus and producing resources.

The photographs in the book are like a slide show with the stories attached as commentary. They are extraordinary evidence of a remarkable history that has been well worth telling.

In some ways, this is a book of family recollections, but we are invited in to witness the much broader significance of what is being told. God’s spirit has been doing remarkable things.

Memories and Medicine in East Arnhem Land
by Dr Paul Mercer
2021 Sue Kennedy Publishing Australia

Dr Owen Lewis
Dr Owen Lewis, a former CMS missionary in Nepal, now does GP locums in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands and is on the board of HealthServe Australia.


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