Who Do You Think You Are?

‘Karl Was A Pioneering Man-Midwife’

Leona Thomas used the first Covid-19 lockdown to write a novel about her fascinatin­g Prussian ancestors, one of whom was a ground-breaking doctor, says Gail Dixon


During 1836, a cholera epidemic spread quickly from Berlin towards the Prussian seaport of Ueckermünd­e. In an echo of modern times, a doctor called Karl Kannenberg insisted that patients displaying symptoms be placed under strict quarantine. As a result, casualty rates subsided in the town while the epidemic ravaged other communitie­s.

His great great granddaugh­ter Leona Thomas used the first coronaviru­s lockdown to fulfil her dream of writing a book about her family. Prussian Blue is a touching and vivid novel that fleshes out the factual detail and brings Leona’s ancestors to life. It covers three generation­s of the Kannenberg­s, including Karl.

Leona’s discoverie­s began in 2000 when she applied to take part in the Channel 4 programme Extraordin­ary Ancestors. “I was keen to find out more about my family,” Leona explains. “Mum thought that we had a sea captain and a surgeon in our ancestry, and that they came from Prussia.”

The production company researched Leona’s family and whisked her off to Germany to film a series of ‘reveals’. “The first took place at Berlin’s Charité hospital. The presenter told me that my great great grandfathe­r Karl Kannenberg trained there in the 1830s. Mum was right – we had a surgeon in the family.

“The hospital archivist handed me a document in Latin. I was astonished to see that it was Karl’s doctoral thesis from 1835. It gave precise details about his specialism, obstetrics, and the doctors who trained him.”

The next day Leona was taken to Ueckermünd­e, in north-east Germany. “They pointed out the inn where Karl was born in 1809 to Johann and Charlotte

Kannenberg. We went inside for a coffee, and being there gave me goose bumps. Johann also owned and ran the local apothecary shop opposite where Karl probably helped out as a boy.

“The programme gave me a marvellous head start on my research. It was at this point that I began to dream of writing a novel about the Kannenberg­s.”

Leona has meticulous­ly researched Karl’s training and career using medical records online and texts from the Charité. “I loved the creative process of bringing my ancestors to life. Karl was clearly a compassion­ate man who cared deeply about women, especially those who were poor.

LEONA THOMAS is retired and lives in Edinburgh. is her second novel

man ‘Karl was a compassion­ate who cared deeply about women’

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