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Bryan Donkin

Horatio Bryan Donkin (1842 - 1927) was a British medical doctor who Schreiner came to know through her involvement with the Men and Women’s Club during the 1880s. Donkin was educated at Oxford and specialized in neurology; he then practiced as a physician in London where he was attached to the Westminster Hospital and also the East London Hospital for Children. Later in life Donkin was appointed Commissioner of Prisons and Director of Convict Prisons and was consulting physician in both cases. He became something of an expert on criminal psychology. He was knighted in 1911.

The exact date of Schreiner’s first meeting with Donkin is not clear, although he was the Marx family doctor. Schreiner’s close friend Eleanor Marx had known him since 1879 when he had treated her mother, and it seems that it was through Eleanor Marx that Schreiner first met Donkin in the early 1880s. First and Scott note that by 1885 Donkin was acting as Schreiner’s doctor too, and describe him as “a sophisticated physician accepted by both the radical circles of Engels and the Marx family and by the establishment world of the Savile Club, on whose committee he had served for three years.” (1989: 145) Donkin was also active in the Men and Women’s Club. He was in love with Olive Schreiner and proposed to her several times during 1885 and 1886. Although Schreiner was perhaps fond of Donkin, she did not reciprocate his love, but her pity for him made it difficult for her to extricate herself from him. In January 1886 she commented to Havelock Ellis “my heart aches for him [Donkin] when I think I can never marry him.” At the same time, his pursuit of her was unwelcomed and intrusive, and led to the two periods in which she lived as a guest on retreat in convents, where male callers were banned.

Donkin was implicated in the series of events which led to Schreiner’s sudden departure from Britain for continental Europe at the end of 1886. It seems that Donkin assumed (or claimed) that the break-down in Schreiner’s health at that time was the result of her ‘unrequited love’ for Karl Pearson, and he informed Pearson that Schreiner was in love with him (see Karl Pearson 840/4/3/160-161), setting off a chain of events culminating in Schreiner’s departure from London and her angry denials that she had any ‘sex feeling’ towards Pearson. A further complication is that since the mid 1880s, Schreiner had been given quantities of morphine by Donkin and other doctors to treat her asthma and heart problems. In the period of her ‘flight’ to Europe in late 1886 and early 1887, it is likely Schreiner’s removal was in part to break with this medically-provided morphia dependence, and also to escape from Donkin’s dogged and intrusive pursuit of her. Although her departure from Britain in 1886 signaled a break in her relations with Donkin, Schreiner’s letters indicate that she did see him again in later life. In a letter to Will Schreiner in 1916, for example, she commented that, “On Tuesday afternoon my old friend Sir Bryan Donkin is coming to see me & examine me”. It is likely that some letters were exchanged between Schreiner and Donkin, although none have been traced.

For further information see:
Ruth First and Ann Scott (1989) Olive Schreiner London: The Women’s Press
Anon (1927) ‘Horatio Bryan Donkin’ Obituary British Medical Journal, 6 August 1927, p.240
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