by Lisa Soverall, Heritage Officer
Dr. Cecil Belfield Clarke was born in Barbados in 1894 and on winning an island scholarship came to London in 1914 to study medicine. In 1918 he graduated from Cambridge University, became a qualified surgeon and then set up his medical practice at 112 Newington Causeway, Southwark. He worked as a doctor, serving the local community for over 40 years and London for over 50. During that time he served as a doctor and medical professional in Africa, the Caribbean and throughout the UK.
Clarke was one of the founder members of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) which began in 1931. The organisation was set up to achieve a number of objectives with a focus on racial equality and civil rights for Black people in Great Britain. Clarke was an active member but was also associated with other Pan-African causes, including as the first chairman of the House Committee of Aggrey House, a hostel for students from Africa and the Caribbean. Clarke was diplomatic and this enabled him to be an effective communicator between the politically left and right of the Pan-African movements of the 1930s and 40s, so much so that he was a mediator during the planning for the Conference on the African Peoples, Democracy, and World Peace held in London in July 1939.
Clarke hosted many LCP events at his home and was a good friend of author and American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, with whom he continued correspondence right up to the 1960s, supporting many of his civil rights causes. Many of Dr Clarke’s letters to Du Bois can be read at the Special Collections and University Archives, at the University of Massachusetts Amhurst. The letters reveal the great affection and respect Clarke had for Du Bois and the importance of continuing the civil rights message. In one such letter dated 4th July 1929, Dr Clarke encloses his annual subscription to The Crisis magazine which he felt was his “duty” as “one of the few coloured Drs practising in London”. He kept the magazine in his doctor’s surgery waiting room and it proved to be a popular read. The Crisis is the official magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) co-founded by W.E.B Du Bois and is still operating.
What may be little known about Dr Clarke is that he formulated the early mathematical dosage for paediatric medicine known as ‘Clark’s rule’. He was the first black District Medical Officer for London in 1936 and the Belfield Clark Prize, which first began in 1952 at St Catharine’s College, Oxford is still awarded to students in Biological Natural Sciences Tripos examinations.
- Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
- The Keys magazine (Southwark Local History Library and Archive).
- Matera, M., Black London: the Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the 20th Century, 1st ed., University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015.
- St Catharine’s College, Cambridge University.