Multiple Sclerosis History


The Multiple Sclerosis Society, or MSSA (Multiple Sclerosis South Africa), was founded in 1966 by Dr Geoffrey Dean in Port Elizabeth which eventually lead to the 3 existing branches countrywide. MSSA Western Cape, MSSA Inland and MSSA KZN.

At 85 years of age Dr Geoffrey Dean received the Investiture of CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from the Queen of England. It was bestowed on him largely due to his MS research and the significant role he played in putting South Africa on the MS map. Dr Geoffrey passed away on 7 September 2009 at the age of 90.

The Life of Dr Geoffrey Dean, CBE – as written by his son, John Geoffrey Dean was born on 5 Dec 1918 in Wrexham, Wales. He was the son of Richard Dean, who was a manager at the local Westminster Bank. He has two younger sisters Pauline and Helen Dean. His sister Pauline also became a doctor and practised as a Catholic missionary for many years in Nigeria and Kenya.

He was raised in Liverpool where his father was a bank manager. He attended Bishops-Court preparatory school for five years and then went to Ampleforth College, which he enjoyed.

In 1938, aged 17, he started studying medicine at Liverpool University, finishing in 1942. As a fifth year medical student he became casualty officer at a hospital near the Liverpool docks, where he was actively involved in saving casualties in the May 1941 bombing of Liverpool during the Second World War. The hospital itself was bombed causing many casualties. In 1942 he met Nonie Devlin, a medical student whom he later married. He passed his final exams in June 1942.

In August 1943 he joined the Royal Air Force as a flying officer. He was posted to Waterbeach bomber station where there was a squadron of Lancaster bombers. Many crews were killed by enemy fire during the tours of duty.

He married Nonie Devlin in June 1944 and in January 1946 the first child, John, was born. Jennifer was born in 1950 and Michael in 1953.
In January 1947 he left for South Africa as a ship’s doctor, getting off at Cape Town. He subsequently settled in Port Elizabeth and was joined by his family in January 1948. Life was hard for young doctors trying to establish a practice at that time.

In September 1948 he accompanied the Governor General of Fiji home to Fiji as his medical advisor after the Governor General had a heart attack, thus getting a free trip around the world.

He noticed there were very few patients with MS in South Africa and wrote a paper on this back in 1949. In May 1951 he wrote the MD examination in England having already completed the MRCP exam.
In 1961 he divorced Nonie and remarried Maria with whom he had two children, Gordon and Elizabeth.

Medial research

He started research in Porphyria in Port Elizabeth in the early 1950’s after seeing several patients with the disease. After noting it ran in families he eventually traced most of the then current generation of sufferers back to a single family founded by Gerrit Jansz van Deventer who arrived in the Cape in 1685. The story is well described in his book “The Porphyrias- a Study of Inheritance and Environment” (Pitman Medical, 1971).

In 1957 he also studied the cause of lung cancer in South Africa by studying death statistics and finding out what proportion of those who died were heavy smokers. It was found that both urban pollution and smoking contribute to lung cancer. Later it has been found that smoking is a major contributor not only to cancer but also to heart attacks and strokes.


In August 1963 Dr Dean founded the South African Multiple Sclerosis Society and in November of the same year applied for registration to the Registrar of Welfare Organisations. After much correspondence, the society was eventually registered as a Welfare Organisation on 6 July, 1966.

lthough the “group” had been going for some time, this date is regarded as the official registered date of the society as the first official minutes are dated 3 September, 1967.

In the meantime, Dr Dean busied himself intensively with MS research. His efforts were noted by Sylvia Lawry, renowned MS researcher in the USA, who invited him to join her efforts in Washington, finding his South African MS research very significant. South African MS research was thus supported by the MS Society, New York, as far back as 1948!

Once again South Africa was brought into play when the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies was formed in 1966 in Washington DC and Dr Dean was invited to participate in this historic event.

To this day, Dr Dean’s particular interest was research into the genetic and environmental link which is presumed to result in MS being more prevalent in the Northern hemisphere, and in South Africa among people of Northern European origin. There appears to be a climate factor with MS being more common in colder climates.

He also compared MS prevalence on the islands of Malta and Sicily and found that MS is practically non-existent on the island of Malta, but just a short distance away, MS in Sicily is a common occurrence. “If we only knew why it would be a big step forward!” he commented.

Dr Dean’s faithful secretary, Ms Isobel Henderson, retired after having given more than 30 years dedicated service to the organisation!

In August 2001, in line with current trends, the organisation changed its name to Multiple Sclerosis South Africa and a new logo was adopted.

In 1965 the Medico-Social Research Board was founded in Dublin and Dr Dean was appointed as the first director in October 1968. Here research was done on the main causes of illness in Ireland. Among other studies a World Health sponsored study showed that in Ireland a major factor in causing heart attacks is smoking.

He continued to do research in MS while working in Ireland, and even after retiring during the 1980’s investigated the interesting difference in MS prevalence between Sicily and Malta, He also did some work in Greek and Turkish Cyprus.

In July 2003 Dr Dean received the investiture of the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen of England – “This honour, I am sure, was bestowed on me largely because of research particularly into MS and the South African part of the research is of the greatest importance” writes Dr Dean in an e-mail to the past National Coordinator of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Ms Ellinor Greeff.

In June 2008 Dr Dean received an honorary doctorate from University College Dublin.

Dr Dean passed away on Monday 7th September 2009, after several months of illness. He is survived by his sisters Pauline and Helen, his wife Maria, his children, John Jennifer, Michael, Gordon and Elizabeth, and by their children and grand-children.

Elsabe Steenberg

Die skrywer Elsabe Steenberg (suster van Andre P Brink) het ‘n figuurtjie met die naam van “Bugaboo” gebruik om haar MS mee te realiseer. Haar dogter het die skets gedoen. Author Elsabe Steenberg (sister of Andre P Brink) used a figurine called “Bugaboo” when referring to her MS. It was her daughter’s creative drawing. MS was ‘n vloekwoord in daardie jare, veral vir ‘n talentvolle vrou soos Elsabe.

Medihelp Protest 2004

In 2004 het Fanie (toe aan hoof van beide Nasionaal en Inland) ‘n protesoptog gereel van MS mense na die kantore van Medihelp in Pretoria. Was baie geslaag en goed aandag getrek. Fanie het hard baklei om MS behandeling op die mediese fonds algoritme te kry en het in 2006 daarmee geslaag toe dit in die Staatskoerant gepubliseer is.

While Fanie Du Toit headed up MSSA during 2004 a successful protest was arranged to the offices of Medihelp in Pretoria to have MS added to the algorithm for medical aids where after it was published in the Government Gazette.