Amelia Nyasa Laws was born to Robert and Margaret Laws, two Scottish missionaries who headed the Livingstonia mission in what was then known as the Nyasaland Protectorate, now Malawi. Dr Robert Laws led the mission for over 50 years and during this period Livingstonia became the main source of education across the Protectorate. He oversaw the training of African pupils in engineering, entrepreneurship, accountancy, education, and the ministry. Margaret learnt Chewa and focused on producing educational as well as religious material in that language.
The men educated in Livingstonia grew in political influence over the years and formed associations to lobby for greater representation and political involvement, something Laws was strongly in favour of despite the typical colonial attitudes of the time. Laws even wanted to establish a university big enough to serve the students of Nyasaland and neighbouring colonies. His dream was eventually realised in 2003 when the University of Livingstonia was established and his 50 years educational work was recognised with a campus being named after him.
Robert and Maggie had 8 children together but tragically Amelia was the only one to survive. She was born at 11.40pm on Tuesday 10th August 1886 onboard the SS LADY NYASA along the western side of Lake Malawi as her parents searched for the best site to establish the Livingstonia mission. At the age of 5, her parents shipped her to her aunt and uncle in Scotland for her education. It is in 1895 that Amelia Laws started at George Watson’s Ladies’ College. Much of what we know about her time at George Square we can only glean from the letters that she received from her mother and father as they attempted to parent her from over 5,000 miles away.
At school, Amelia excelled both academically and musically. Interestingly for an educator, her father tried to temper Amelia’s focus on her studies, writing:
“We are very highly pleased with the results of your exam papers; but do not be too eager. Remember, we desire you to enjoy your childhood for a few years yet.”
Still, Maggie and Robert’s letters show pride in their daughter’s achievements, especially after Amelia’s “peculiar trials” in 1897 where it seems that she suffered ill health and missed school yet still achieved top grades:
“Your prizes, 6 in number, had brought you a keen joy after your hard times of sorrow & crying & disappointment at not being present to receive them.”
Life must not have been easy for Amelia being so far from her parents, struggling with illness, while also getting into fights and being teased at school. Here is her father’s advice for the latter:
Between 1894 and 1899 Maggie and Robert wrote around 100 letters to their daughter, asking for news, offering encouragement, showing their love, and providing updates about the place where she was born.
At the age of 17 and after 8 years at George Watson’s Ladies’ College, Amelia moved to Rome with her aunt and uncle to finish her education. Her love for music eventually took her to Dresden where she studied the subject under Bernhard Pfannstiehl, a blind organist who was encouraged into music by Franz Liszt, and Arthur Chitz, a well-known composer who tragically died at the Riga-Kaiserwald concentration camp. In her letters she seems happy with life, enjoying her studies and getting involved at the Kreuzkirche.
Amelia and her aunt and uncle, most likely travelling back to Rome for a holiday, found themselves in Austria as Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and war declared. They escaped south, arriving in Milan just 30 minutes before the border was shut. They returned to Rome for about a year until it seemed Italy could no longer maintain neutrality. Amelia writes to her parents about journeying to Chamonix for her uncle’s health, however, it is unclear whether this is the case or whether Chamonix was considered safer and less of a target for the Austro-Hungarian forces than the Italian capital.
Amelia clearly felt a sense of wartime duty, writing in January 1918 that had she been a man, she would have volunteered in 1914. After having taken a Red Cross short course for nursing as well as lessons from a masseuse part of her church, Amelia saw her opportunity to serve. In 1916 she started working as the sole masseuse at a military hospital, the Hôpital Auxiliaire No. 10 in Aix-le-Bains, 80 miles away from Chamonix and over 500 miles from her home in Rome. In her first letter to her parents, still in Livingstonia, she wrote that most of her patients have arrived straight from the battlefields of Verdun. The benefits of massage at that time were viewed with scepticism but Amelia clearly impressed as it was not long before she oversaw her own staff at the hospital. Later that year, she wrote that her time at Aix-le-Bains had been the happiest since leaving school.
Amelia returned to Rome at the end of 1916. It is unclear as to why she left at this time however, on her return to France in July 1917, the newly appointed Dr Muller at Aix-le-Bains did not consider massage as a valid form of treatment and refused to allow Amelia to resume her post. Despite this setback, she quickly found work at another French military hospital at Chambéry, allowing her to continue her innovative work as a masseuse for wounded soldiers. Here, she forged a strong bond with her patients who she writes about fondly in her letters.
Again, Amelia spent the winter in Rome. This time she found work as a nurse for 4 months but wrote that she much preferred massage as a profession and certainly preferred the cool conditions of alpine Chambéry to that of the unclean city hospital in Rome. Her patients back in Chambéry were loath to see her leave, even offering to write a letter to “the King of England” to ask for her return from Rome. Their wish was eventually granted as Amelia returned to France yet again, finding work as a masseuse in various military hospitals in southeast France for the remainder of the war and beyond, treating wounded soldiers and returning prisoners of war, while also experimenting with prosthetics for men missing limbs as a result of the conflict.
During the interwar years Amelia returned to Edinburgh and, rather than resuming her musical training, she enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. She graduated MB ChB in 1930 and worked abroad in Belgium and Germany before establishing her own orthopaedics practice in London. In 1959 Dr Laws retired, moved back to Edinburgh, and continued to treat patients at her home in Merchiston Crescent until the age of 90.
Letters part of the Law’s collection, MS 3290/12/54, MS 3290/12/45, and MS 3290/13/34 reproduced with kind permission from the University of Aberdeen Special Collections