Fuerteventura’s First Doctor
An Article by Bernie Power with The Voice
Fuerteventura is a great place to explore and just jumping on the bus or hiring a car can take you to all kinds of interesting places. When travelling out of the resorts and into the villages, you will see monuments, plaques, statues and buildings, all of which give you an insight into this island’s past and the people that called it home. This month we are taking you to a little-known village called Ampuyenta, which was once the home of Fuerteventura’s very first doctor.
Directions: If you take the road to Antigua from Puerto Del Rosario, you will pass through the village of Ampuyenta. This is not a busy place and to the naked eye, there is not really much to see other than locals going about their daily business but it has real history if you take the time to look for it. On your left, as you go into the village, you will notice a big, old two-story house with a stone bust on display outside. This is the house of Doctor Mena. It is often overlooked as you pass by, but well worth stopping and visiting.
Tomas Antonio Dejan Pedro Mena Mesa was born in the village, to poor parents, in 1802. They didn’t have much in material wealth to give him – but they certainly gave him lots of names! There were no schools available back then, so they sold most of their produce, which was grain, so they could send him to Las Palmas to study. From there, He eventually went to university in Seville to study medicine. At just 19 years old, Tomas went to stay in Havana in Cuba with his brother Juan Conrado who was a priest there. He arrived with just one shirt and a hanky in his bag. After proving, as was necessary then, that he was pure Catholic Spanish and not Jewish or Muslim or that he had a criminal record, he was allowed to study for his Bachelor of Medicine. On receiving it, he went to Paris for 6 years to work and study further. He was eventually called back to Cuba and was instrumental in saving many lives during outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever that struck the island. Afterwards he found his way to Cadiz, in Spain, and settled there as a professor.
FREE TREATMENTS FOR ALL
In 1847, he returned to Fuerteventura, to live with his mother. This is when he had the big house built. From then, he became the first and only doctor on the whole island. Life had obviously treated him well, as he had become so overweight, that if he wanted to go anywhere, he had to go by camel! Because of this, he insisted that his patients came to him and all the medical services he provided was free. One time however, he managed to aggravate a fierce political opponent, Don Fernando Rugama, who never forgave him. He was called to his death bed and not only cured the man, but as usual, he also refused payment, saying that he had only done his duty. He left Don Fernando alive and well, albeit forever furious.
HIS FINAL WISH
Dr Mena died in 1868 and left all his library and medical instruments to a doctor friend. Unfortunately, his books were used as fuel to toast corn by his relatives. With his wealth, which amounted to 25.000. pesetas, an enormous sum back then, he ordered a hospital to be built in Ampuyenta. This hospital is the grand building that you can see standing proud now – but it took a while to get there!
1872 – Municipality asked to start construction.
1881 – After delays, executors agreed only 10.000. pesetas
1901 – Work began on the foundations.
1907 – Work was stopped due to many technical problems
1929 – Work was restarted, but major repairs were needed.
1931 – Finally it was completed, after 59 years!
The building never became a hospital dedicated to St. Conrado and St. Gaspar, in memory of his brother and grandfather. Instead, it was auctioned off in 1965 for 18.000 pesetas as the council couldn’t afford to use it. It never became an important place and today is occasionally used by the church as a retreat. It is such a good-looking building, but just too grand for such a little village. A little village that gave birth to the very first doctor and a great humanitarian who should be remembered and even put up the money for it to be built. Alas, he didn`t get his final wish.
Today the grand house has been turned into a museum and you can walk around the grounds or wander around the inside rooms. All the areas have been sympathetically restored with period decorations and furniture, so you can get a glimpse into what daily life would have looked like for Dr Mena.