Just before midnight on Wednesday, 9 November
1948, the police raided the private medical practice of Dr Gerhardus
Bernieres Buchner at Castle Mansions, Eloff Street, Johannesburg.
They discovered five women in different rooms, each of whom had
undergone an abortion. Buchner was in another room, counting money
on the bed.
When Detective Head Constable F.C. van Niekerk,
the officer in charge of the raid, accused Buchner of carrying
out abortions on the premises, Buchner claimed that the women
were being treated for varicose veins. One of the patients was
immediately transferred to the Johannesburg General Hospital where
it was established that she had received an abortion. Thus began
one of South Africa's greatest scandals in recent times.
Buchner (44) was an outstanding physician.
He studied medicine at the University of Cape Town Medical School,
in Germany and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He had been operating
an extremely lucrative abortion clinic in Johannesburg for over
eight years and his private practice at Castle Mansions provided
the perfect front for these clandestine operations.
The system at Castle Mansions was simple,
efficient and well organised. On arrival, patients would be examined
either by Dr Buchner or his junior partner, Dr Edward Blumberg
(34). Once pregnancy had been confirmed, Nurse Susanna Pieterse
(34), would present the bill. (The average cost was £70
to £75, payable in advance.) When the financial details
were concluded, arrangements for the abortion would be made.
Normally, patients would arrive sometime during
the afternoon, go into the Theatre late in the evening, and be
discharged the following morning. They would not know the names
of the doctors or the nurses that treated them.
The abortion team comprised four people. Buchner
or Blumberg carried out the operation with Nurse Pieterse acting
as anaesthetist. A second nurse, Anna Sophia Kelly, sometimes
performed the duties of general assistant. In addition, a relief
nurse who filled in for Kelly in 1941, when she went on holiday,
provided a referral system. From 1943 to 1945, this nurse had
worked for another doctor, but would send pregnant women to Buchner.
For this service, she received a commission of £5 to £7
per patient. In 1946, she worked in the Castle Mansion rooms once
more and was paid £30 per month - an excellent salary of
At the inquiry that followed Buchner's exposure,
the same nurse claimed that at least five abortions were carried
out each day - although the clinic had on occasion handled up
to nine patients in a twenty-four hour period. In some cases,
operations were conducted by torch-light in order to avoid attracting
unnecessary attention to the premises!
Despite the elaborate precautions, which Buchner
and his associates took to maintain their anonymity, word slowly
got around. In the end, exposure was inevitable. Buchner had a
close shave in 1946, when the Johannesburg newspaper, Weekblad,
published an article entitled Aborsie in Johannesburq, in which
it was alleged that one of Johannesburg's foremost abortionists
had three flats in the city, all under different names and was
said to be making £2 500 a month from the practice. The
newspaper's source was subsequently proved to be more than accurate.
Indeed, exactly how lucrative Buchner's practice had become was
revealed during the trial.
Financial records presented to the court showed
that from July 1 946 to June 1947, over £51 000 had been
paid into Buchner's banking account. From August 1947, to July
1948, the figure was £36 000, and in the three months that
preceded the police raid, Buchner's income had been £9 500.
Buchner also owned a farm and plots of ground on which houses
were built and sold. The abortion clinic at the Castle Mansions
was making him very wealthy.
The end came for Buchner shortly after the
police were informed about the illegal operations being performed
at Castle Mansions by a small stock former from the Northern Transvaal.
The farmer had been asked by his recently-widowed cousin to take
her to Johannesburg where she was to have a medical examination
for 'varicose veins'. After the first visit to Castle Mansions,
she had asked him to lend her £75, for the cost of the operation.
She had no money of her own because her husband's estate had not
been wound-up. Her uncle gave her £70, and a few days later
they returned to the city. When he picked her up after her operation,
she looked 'very weak and pale' and on the return journey, she
confessed to having had an abortion.
The farmer later returned to Castle Mansions,
spoke first to Nurse Pieterse and then to Buchner and tried unsuccessfully
to get some of their money back. It was not long afterwards that
he approached Brigadier Mickdal, Acting Commissioner for the police
in Pretoria, and alleged that Buchner was procuring illegal abortions
on a 'wholesale scale'.
Following the raid on Castle Mansions, the
police began an intensive investigation to trace other patients
of Buchner and Blumberg. Needless to say, the investigation was
of an extremely sensitive nature, all the more so since the police
had no wish to cause hardship or distress to any of the women
who had been treated by either of the two doctors.
Meanwhile, Buchner, Blumberg and Pieterse
were remanded in custody pending an inquiry. The inquiry, which
began on 9 December, 1948, quickly established that there was
a case to answer. The four accused were granted bail, Buchner
and Blumberg for the amounts of £500 each.
On 17 January, 1949, the official hearing
began at the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court under Mr M.A.S. Mathews.
In order to protect the identities of those involved, the hearing
was held in-camera and none of the names and addresses of the
over sixty witnesses who were called to give evidence were released
to the press. At the end of each day an official bulletin was
Buchner, Blumberg, Pieterse and Kelly were
subsequently committed for trial on 1 March 1949. The seven-week
trial which began two months later was to attract immense public
interest, produce over 1100 pages of written evidence, and reveal
some astounding facts. The prosecution was led by Mr F.E. Lutge
K.C., Attorney General for the Transvaal. Witness after witness
came to the stand and testified that they had had abortion performed
by Buchner and Blumberg under conditions of great secrecy. In
virtually every case the patient had no knowledge of the names
of the doctors or nurses who treated them. One woman told the
court how, on the morning after the operation, she was brought
a cup of tea in her room and noticed that there were a number
of other cups on the tray. She had assumed that this meant that
other patients were also being treated. She also said that on
the day after her operation she was sent home in a taxi, even
though she was still very weak, because her room had to be vacated
Another woman from Natal went to Johannesburg
to procure an abortion after doctors in Natal refused to help
her. She approached a number of doctors and all but one refused
to help her in any way - he gave her Buchner's name. At Castle
Mansions, she was first interviewed by a blond nurse (Pieterse)
and was later examined by a doctor who told her that she was five
months pregnant. The blond woman then asked her if she couldn't
get married. Pieterse then informed her that, because of the advanced
state of her pregnancy, the fee for the abortion would be £200.
This figure was later reduced to £150. The women paid £90
in cash - all the money she had with her - and Pieterse also took
down her parents' names and address.
Why did Nurse Pieterse do that?” Mr
N. Masters, Mr Lutge's assistant asked.
”As a guarantee,” the woman replied.
“Guarantee? Guarantee of what?”
”That they would tell my parents if
I didn't pay the money I owed.” She later sent the balance
Dr Blumberg was also charged with attempting
to defeat the ends of justice. He was alleged to have approached
a policeman friend (who happened by coincidence to have been part
of the raid on Castle Mansions) and asked him to get the names
and addresses of some of the key witnesses. The police initially
maintained that this was an attempt by Blumberg to get some of
the witnesses to either change their evidence or claim that their
evidence was given under duress. These charges were later dropped.
After hearing evidence for seven weeks the
judges retired on 27 June to consider their verdict. At 10 a.m.
on the morning of Tuesday, 9 August 1949, judgment was finally
Facing a packed courtroom, the judge began
his two-hour summing-up. He began by commending the defective
team of Detective Head Constable F. C. van Niekerk, Defective
Head Constable H.P. Mare and Detective-Sergeants J.A. Le Roux
and S. Smidt. They had carried out extremely delicate investigative
work with great tact and consideration. Consequently, neither
the lives nor the reputations of any of the women involved had
been harmed in any way.
The judge turned to the defendants. The court
had accepted, he conceded, the defence counsel’s argument
that the women who had appeared for the prosecution were in no
way complainants. All those called had appeared merely at the
request of the police. However, as he pointed out, the morality
of abortion was not the issue. It was the task of the court simply
to establish if the law had been broken and this was clearly the
case. Furthermore, the accused were fully aware of the illegality
of what they were doing: they had operated under conditions of
great secrecy, and the names and addresses of the women who had
undergone abortions did not appear on any file cards. It was clear,
therefore, that Buchner's private practice at Castle Mansions
was being used to procure abortions on a regular basis. Of the
60 counts on which Buchner was charged, he was found guilty of
49. He was given six weeks 'hard labour' for each count - a total
of five years and 34 weeks. Blumberg was given six weeks 'hard
labour' for 34 counts - three years and 48 weeks. Nurse Pieterse,
who had actively participated in the abortions and acted as anaesthetist,
was given four weeks on each of 48 counts - a total of four years.
Nurse Kelly received four weeks for ten counts but her four months
sentence was suspended. Buchner, Blumberg and Kelly received their
sentences stoically and made no protest as they were led away
to the cells. Pieterse, however, broke down completely and had
to be assisted from the court.
And so it seemed that along and drawn out
cause celebre had finally ended. But the closing chapter of the
story was still be written. Buchner was to use his medical knowledge
to save a life while in prison. For this exemplary conduct he
was granted two years reemission of sentence. Dr Gerhardus Buchner
died several years after his release.