Anne Spoerry catching up on the news in midair. Spoerry spent decades as a “flying doctor” in Africa. (Author's collection/Author's collection)

Aditi Sriram teaches at Ashoka University, near New Delhi. Her short biography of Pondicherry, a city in South India that was colonized by the French, will be published later this year.

Anne Spoerry was a French-born doctor who spent nearly 50 years in Africa, flying her plane from village to village and helping people all over the continent, one vaccination, one improvised suture at a time. Her work was fundamental to the eradication of smallpox in Kenya. Spoerry’s patients dubbed her “Mama Daktari,” or “Mother Doctor,” and though they were sometimes terrified of her short temper and long syringes, they would wait expectantly for her to appear in the sky, land with a lurch and bark instructions at them.

But Spoerry’s humanitarian work is only a small part of her life story. In his fascinating biography, “In Full Flight,” John Heminway offers a fuller picture of this complicated woman. Though Spoerry (pronounced Shpeuri) has been hailed by many as a savior, her reputation has been marred by questions about her actions during World War II. Shortly after she died in 1999, a family member discovered, locked away in a safe, a document indicating that Spoerry had been wanted for war crimes — specifically for torturing prisoners at Ravensbrück, a German concentration camp for women where she had been held for helping the Resistance in France.

With this book, Heminway, a documentary filmmaker who befriended Spoerry while working in Africa, seeks to figure out who Spoerry really was: Heroine or villain? Healer or killer? It is a captivating — if at times frustratingly told — tale of complex truths and motivations.

Heminway has done his research and is determined to weave a rich tapestry out of these complexities. He interviewed hundreds of people, dove into family archives, visited Ravensbrück and read Spoerry’s journals. He quotes women who survived the camp and remembered Spoerry. Some cursed her; others praised her. He is respectful even as he exposes Spoerry’s controversial past.

“In Full Flight,” by John Heminway (Knopf/Knopf)

At the center of Heminway’s investigation is the strange relationship between Spoerry and Carmen Mory, a “block elder” at Ravensbrück who became Spoerry’s confidante (and perhaps her lover). Mory took Spoerry under her wing and, Heminway suggests, may have forced the young medical student to harm fellow prisoners. According to interviews with survivors, Spoerry became Mory’s accomplice in terrible acts: throwing buckets of cold water at sick inmates, administering lethal injections and more. Spoerry, some former prisoners recalled, helped guards select prisoners for the gas chamber. But others testified that away from Mory, Spoerry treated the sick admirably, even with tenderness — a trait that defined her medical career in Africa.

Spoerry was freed from Ravensbrück in 1945. She resumed her medical studies and tried to return to a semblance of her prewar life. But in 1946, a French Court of Honor charged her with impersonating a doctor and “with having administered injections of Evipan and of air, leading to the death of at least one patient.” Spoerry, the court determined, “had engaged in ‘anti-French and anti-patriotic behavior.’ ” She was exiled from the country. Spoerry resumed her medical studies in Switzerland, where she was later imprisoned — Mory implicated her in a very public trial in Hamburg — and finally, aided by her family, fled to Africa. In Kenya, Spoerry began practicing medicine, her muddy personal history a secret.

Heminway seems to suggest that Spoerry’s behavior is not entirely strange or evil, but part of a larger pattern of falling under the spell of others. Behind her strong, stubborn persona was a sister who craved a brother’s attention and an exiled European who became enchanted with Africa. Just as she confessed that she had been “spellbound” by Mory, Spoerry admitted that she had joined the Resistance in 1942 because her brother François did.

The book’s subtitle, “A Story of Africa and Atonement,” is a reminder that Heminway wants to focus on Spoerry’s decisions over a lifetime, not an episode. He — and others in the book — marvel at Spoerry, the first female “flying doctor,” who was featured in a Werner Herzog documentary, “The Flying Doctors of East Africa”; vaccinated more than 120,000 patients; and ran 64 clinics around the continent. Heminway diligently tracked down Ravensbrück survivors who were horrified by her behavior there, but toward the end, he quotes one, Louise Le Porz, who says: “What [Spoerry] did in Africa was admirable. She went there for redemption. Today, if she were still alive, knowing her suffering, realizing the beauty she made of her career, and knowing how much she has done for humanity, my reaction would be different. I would embrace her.”

That Spoerry’s story is complicated is an understatement, but Heminway escalates the dramatic elements in a way that is sometimes distracting. The first five chapters end with cliffhangers, which seems more than one too many. The chapters jump in time — from Heminway’s first meeting with Spoerry in Nairobi in 1980, to her 1948 escape from France, to her childhood in Switzerland and then to 1940s Paris. A narrative need not be chronological or linear, but here the storytelling feels abrupt and jagged. Moreover, Heminway’s style obfuscates key details about how Spoerry ultimately reconciled with the French government, among other events.

Where the author’s writing shines is in his descriptions of Africa, about which he has written three other books. He frequently writes about the sky, having accompanied Spoerry on several of her voyages across the continent: “Today the sky is as quiet as a hawk on the hunt,” he writes. “Even on the sun-baked plain, marabou storks hush, like undertakers — bills half open, eyes frozen, legs as stiff as starch. They too appear to listen for the plane.”

“In Full Flight” is a daring and devastating story of a woman who sailed oceans and flew across a continent to escape her past — even if it’s never fully clear what that past was.

in full flight
A Story of Africa and Atonement

By John Heminway

Knopf. 316 pp. $27.95