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COOK, Mary

Born: 1902 08 04
Died: 1981 08 02


Physician and cultural historian, Born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England, the eldest of the four children of George Glover Alexander, a barrister of Leeds, and his wife, Mary Anne Baker.

She matriculated from Barnsley Girls' High School in 1919 with several distinctions, having spent periods with family friends in Belgium to perfect her French. She studied at the medical school of Leeds University, graduating in 1925. After her marriage to the Reverend Alexander Walter Cook on 1926 04 06 the couple left for South Africa where her husband had accepted the position of rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church at Rustenburg, Transvaal. There Mary Cook undertook general practice until the birth of their son in 1931. The following year the family moved to Pretoria, the Reverend Cook having become rector of Christ Church in Arcadia, serving there until 1949. Mary Cook gave up general practice but lectured in public health to nursing students in Pretoria and Johannesburg and was very active in clinical work and related fields.

During the late thirties and early forties she and her family spent several holidays in the Western Cape where its beauty and sense of history held appeal. She recorded her observations of her field trips to old town centres and farms in numerous notebooks, consolidating them with incalculable hours of research in the Cape Archives, the Deeds Office, and the NG Kerk Archives in Cape Town. These studies resulted in her writing articles on Cape architecture regularly for journals, beginning in 1947 with a contribution to Africana Notes and News. Her ceaseless campaign for the preservation of old Cape buildings was acknowledged as early as 1949 by the award of a medal from the Historical Monuments Commission.

In the same year the Cook household moved to the Cape were the Reverend Cook was appointed rector of St Andrew’s at the Strand and subsequently (1956) of Holy Trinity Church, Kalk Bay, where he died the following year. Although his illness limited her engagements Mary Cook managed to play an active part in the celebrations that took place at the Strand during the Van Riebeeck Festival of 1952.

After her husband's death she devoted her time increasingly to cultural history and the preservation of Cape architecture. In 1958 she accepted a post at the South African Museum in Cape Town which effectively put her in charge of the entire cultural history section; this included the Koopmans de Wet House, which subsequently became independent as the South African Cultural History Museum. The following year she received an award from the Cape Tercentenary Foundation for her services to architectural conservation from 1952 to 1958. She remained at the South African Museum until 1964 when she became the first professional curator of the Drostdy Museum at Swellendam.

Her lengthy collaboration with Hans FRANSEN culminated in their publication The old houses of the Cape (1965), the first comprehensive inventory of old Cape buildings. In 1969 she was awarded a medal by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. In 1971 the University of Stellenbosch conferred on her an honorary doctorate of philosophy in recogniztion of her contribution to the study of the material culture of the Cape. Her work in cultural history museums enabled her to pay more attention to Cape furniture and her book The Cape Kitchen (1973) was also published in Afrikaans. In the same year her promotion of the cultural heritage of Swellendam with particular reference to architectural conservation, having crusaded for the preservation of the historical buildings in the town when the main street was widened and her work at the Drostdy Museum, were acknowledged by the town council in granting her the freedom of the town.

She remained curator of the Drostdy Museum until her retirement in 1974, but continued on the staff in an advisory capacity for the next year. She then moved to Ballotina in Church Street, Tulbagh, which she had bought in 1945.

She died in Somerset West. Western Cape. An incomplete manuscript remains, dealing with the furnishing of Cape interiors.

A son Michael Alexander, a mechanical engineer, and a daughter Pauline Mary COOK-NEL, an architect, were born of her marriage to the Reverend Cook.

[Biography extracted and shortened from the entry in DSAB 5 authored by C Cochrane, citing the following sources:

Master of the Supreme Court, C.T.: Estate no. 5552/81; - p. ROSSEN, 'Wat nuut is, maak sy weer oud', Die Huisgenoot, 11.8.1950; - Drostdy Museum: Annual Reports, 1964-74; - Die Burger, 3.4.1964; 9.1.1969; 28.8.1969; 23.8.1973; 16.11.1981; 17.11.1981; - Tuis in 'n tronk', Sarie Marais, 2.7.1969; - Het Suid Western, 28.8.1969; 8.4.1971; 30.8.1973; - G. and G. FAGAN, Church Street in the Land of Waveren. C.T.,1974; - R. KOEN, 'Dr Mary Cook', South African Panorama, Nov. 1974; - Overberg, 17.1.1975; - Obituaries: Die Burger, 5.8.1981; Cape Times, 5.8.1981; - c. COCHRANE, 'Dr Mary Cook and the Drostdy Museum - A personal view', Restorica, July 1982; - Private information: Mrs P. Cook-Nel (daughter), Somerset West.]

These notes were last edited on 2020 08 04

Books by COOK

Fransen, Hans & Cook, Mary Alexander. 1965. The old houses of the Cape : a survey of the existing buildings in the traditional style of architecture of the Dutch-settled regions of the Cape of Good Hope. Cape Town: AA Balkema

Cook, Mary Alexander. 1973. Die Kaapse kombuis : 'n beskrywing van sy ligging, uitleg en toebehore. Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch Museum

Fransen, Hans & Cook, Mary Alexander. 1980. The old houses of the Cape : A survey and description of old buildings in the Western Province .... Cape Town: AA Balkema

Fransen, Hans & Cook, Mary Alexander. 1981. The Old Buildings of the Cape. Cape Town: Balkema

Books citing COOK

HSRC. 1987. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume V. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council. pp 148-149

Martin, Desmond. 2007. Walking Long Street. Cape Town: Struik. pp 17, 75

Entries in books by COOK

Cook, Mary A. The authenticity of restoration. In The Preservation and restoration of historic buildings in South Africa. 1968. AA Balkema

Cook, Mary Alexander. THIBAULT, Louis Michel. In Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa [SESA] Volume 10 Sle-Tun. 1974. Nasou