A review of the Jilek-Aall Biography in the Ormsby Review

Love affair with Africa

Moon Madness: Dr. Louise Aall, Sixty Years of Healing in Africa
by Alan Twigg

Vancouver: Ronsdale Books, 2019
$21.95 / 9781553805939

Reviewed by Valerie Green


In writing the true-life story of Dr. Louise Aall (pronounced All), author Alan Twigg has produced a spellbinding biography about an incredible woman.

For sixty years, Dr. Aall devoted her life to healing the sick in Africa, establishing a clinic to treat patients with epilepsy (initially known as moon madness — kifafa in Swahili), while at the same time continually researching and writing papers about epilepsy in order to help obliterate the stigma and lack of education surrounding this disease in Africa.

A young Louise Aall

Dr. Aall’s story is both refreshing and unusual and tells of how a shy, introverted young woman did great things to change the world through determination and fortitude. Twigg has presented the reader with a biography that will definitely inspire all those who read it.

Louise Aall was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1931. She was the second child of Lily Weiser-Aall, an ethnologist, and Anathon Aall, a professor of philosophy and psychology. Louise and her older brother, Cato, with whom she was especially close, and her younger sister, Ingrid, were largely home-schooled by their parents who always encouraged them to read above all else.

From an early age, Louise knew she must aspire to great things as she was part of a family of high achievers. In addition, both her paternal and maternal ancestors had played a large part in the history of Norway.

Aall as a young doctor

Despite the pressure this might have put upon a young child, Louise recalls her childhood as being “mostly happy — full of music, laughter and learning…. ” (p. 2) There was also the occasional beating from an over-zealous nanny who was instantly fired once the beatings came to light.

Twigg intersperses the story with Louise’s own words, which begin when she explains how her father’s deteriorating health during the 1930s was never discussed. “In Norway, people don’t talk about illnesses … unlike in North America where people love to talk about illness.” She added, “I don’t like that at all. It embarrasses me.” This is a somewhat strange comment in view of her lifelong profession in the medical field.

The coming of war in 1940 drastically changed Louise’s life and that of her family. During those years they moved from German-occupied Oslo to their country house, during which time Louise’s father’s health deteriorated even further and he began to experience hallucinatory episodes. He died in 1942 of Parkinson’s Disease.

In 1946 Louise’s brother and sister were allowed to return to Oslo but Louise remained with her mother and indulged her passion for reading, teaching herself to also read in Swedish and Danish and learn to play the piano. Over the next two years, she decided she wanted to become doctor.

Dr. Jilek-Aall making house calls in Africa. Photo by Wolfgang Jilek. Courtesy BC BookLook

This was not an easy path for her because of years of home schooling and then returning to the school system late, where her inability to become proficient in mathematics held her back. She failed to gain entry into the University of Oslo, but in 1951 gained entrance to the University of Tubingen in Germany. The next few years were a happy experience for her despite her shyness. One particular event in 1954 long remained in her memory — when she joined a torchlight ceremony to sing a Norwegian hymn to honour Nobel Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a man who would later play an enormous part in her life in Africa.

By 1958 Louise had completed all her medical exams and then for one more year studied tropical medicine in Switzerland. In 1959 she was offered a small salary to conduct research in Africa. Thus began her life-long love affair with the African continent.

The author later points out, “Her love affair with Africa was a lifelong commitment — a passion — and she had to wonder if — it would be the most important relationship she would ever have. It was certainly the longest” (p. 196).

Dr. Jilek-Aall with the first group of female patients at Mahenje, Tanzania. Photo by Wolfgang Jilek

Although she loved her work in Africa, she often questioned herself about whether she should have married and had children — but her relationships with men were few and far between.

For the next few years she began her important medical work in the field through twenty Catholic missions. This often entailed long days of travelling to outlying regions either by truck or by bike. Sometimes she had to walk for hours to reach her destination, but she loved the work as she knew she was laying the foundation for her future epilepsy clinic at Mahenge.

Dr. Jilek-Aall (centre) during a recent visit to Mahenge. Photo by Wolfgang Jilek, courtesy BC BookLook

However, when called by the Norwegian Red Cross to head to the Belgian Congo in 1960, she didn’t hesitate — despite the dangers involved.
Author Alan Twigg describes this perilous time in detail as well as her future meeting back in Lambarene in Gabon with Dr. Albert Schweitzer, with whom she formed a special bond of understanding.

Alan Twigg. Photo courtesy Nelson Star

In 1963, back in Europe while undertaking further neurological training under Professor H. Landolt, she met Wolfgang Jilek, and agreed to allow him to accompany her back to Mahenge, where their relationship developed. They were eventually married with two wedding ceremonies in Oslo and Vienna.

They both were inspired to study further the subjects of transcultural psychiatry and epidemiology at McGill University, so they set sail for Canada. During those next few years they wrote many papers on those subjects and in 1965 Louise received her McGill diploma in psychiatry. During a cross-country holiday they both fell in love with the beauty of British Columbia, where they decided to settle.

But Louise’s love of Africa always called to her, and once again Twigg describes those future visits with explicit detail as she desperately tries to re-establish her clinic while continuing to study and broaden her medical knowledge.

In 1979, Louise and Wolfgang adopted a four-year-old girl from an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia, and little Martica became part of their family.

Alan Twigg has presented a biography rich with medical information alongside the personal and amazing life of a woman whose devotion to healing is second to none. At the end of the book he has included research and scientific papers written by both Louise and Wolfgang Jilek, as well as an Appendix with letters written in 1992 to Dr. Aall by two women — a 17 year-old and a 24 year-old — who thanked her for dispelling the notions that epileptic seizures were unnatural. They hoped that everyone would come to understand that these seizures could be controlled with medication. I guarantee these letters will move readers and enable them to understand the prejudices Louise had to fight in Africa.

Even those with little or no medical knowledge will be moved by this biography of an incredible woman, whose work and career needed to be documented both for future generations and for the purpose of tropical medical research.

Louise Jilek-Aall of Tsawwassen

Sixty years after Louise first encountered a small boy who believed his life was ruined because of “moon madness,” her revitalized clinic for epileptic patients at Mahenge still operates today with renewed hope (p. 209).

Author Alan Twigg has written many books and biographies, but is perhaps best known as the creator of BC BookWorld, the ABCBookWorld reference service, BC BookLook news service and the Literary Map of BC, all of which have enabled British Columbian writers to have a voice in today’s world. In 2014 Twigg was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books.

Valerie Green
Valerie Green

She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie’s most recent contributions to The Ormsby Review are reviews of books by Leslie Howard, D.B. Carew, Caroline Adderson, Dean Unger, Jody Hedlund, Dora Dueck, and Tara Moss.


You can read the original review here.