Saving Eyes in Quetta, Shikarpur and Beyond

Shaikh Abdul Rasheed on the work of Sir Dr. Henry Tristram Holland – Missionary and ‘Frontier Doctor’

Saving Eyes in Quetta, Shikarpur and Beyond
Sir Dr. Henry Tristram Holland was one of the world’s best known ophthalmologists and brilliant medical missionaries. He served as an ophthalmologist in India and Pakistan for 55 years. With his professional proficiency and humanitarian spirit, he restored the eye sight of more than 100,000 people during his long life. He will be remembered and honoured for serving human beings on the principle of non-discrimination.

Sir Henry was born at his grandfather Tristram’s house on the 12th of February, 1875, in Farnham, a city in northeast England. His father Canon L.W Holland was a clergyman. He went up to Edinburgh University in 1894 to study medicine. As he was aspirant to become a medical missionary, therefore, alongside his study he remained busy in Evangelistic and missionary activities of the university. He became secretary and later president of Christian Union. After graduating from the university in 1899, he became the travelling secretary of the student volunteer mission. He sought membership of the Punjab Mission of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and remained a member for 48 years. He was sent to Quetta, a city in India, as a medical missionary in March 1900 when he was hardly 25 years old. He obtained his FRCS ED in 1907.

Sir Dr. Henry Tristram Holland

Dr Holland writes in his autobiography from 1958 titled Frontier Doctor that when he reached Quetta, he had no practical knowledge in medical field. The Christian Missionary Society (CMS) hospital in Quetta was established by Dr S. W. Sutton, an ophthalmologist, in 1886. Soon after Holland joined the mission hospital, it was full of patients. He was swiftly initiated into eye surgery and extra-capsular cataract extraction by his senior Dr. Summer-Hayes.

For missionary purpose, Henry went to Kashmir and stayed there for some days. In 1907, he was made in-charge of the Quetta hospital. In 1908, he had learned intra-capsular cataract surgery from Dr. Jullundur Smith of the Indian Medical Service. In 1935, an earthquake had destroyed much of Quetta, in which around 20,000 people were killed in just 30 seconds. The building of the hospital collapsed and he was trapped in the rubble. Fortunately, his son Dr. Ronald rescued him.

In 1909, Dr. Henry was invited by Seth Hiranand Mendha, a Hindu banker to meet at his residency in Shikarpur, a town in Sindh province of India. This philanthropist had been paying the travel expenses of the poor eye patients of his area to Quetta. When he saw the number of the patients had increased enormously, he decided to ask the now well-known ophthalmologist to come to Shikarpur and work for a time there. A meeting between them had occurred probably at Sibi and the doctor accepted his request. Hiranand put his private house at the ophthalmologist’s disposal. On the 5th of December, 1909, he along with two assistants came to Shikarpur. In three weeks, they saw around 4,000 patients and performed over 500 operations: 203 of them were cataract extraction procedures.

Dr. Derrick Tilton Vail Jr.

On Hiranand’s request to come to the city every year, Holland told him that the place was not fit for eye surgery. The operations were performed in an open veranda packed with dust and swarms of flies. Then he consented to come every year on the condition that the Seth would build a small hospital with two operation theaters, out-patient waiting room and Halls at his Bungalow. He and his staff would be free to use the Evangelistic methods of a mission hospital—which meant the teaching of a Christian message and sale of the gospels. However, this was very difficult decision for the orthodox Hindu as he knew that people of Shikarpur would be antagonistic to this proselytising.

The Seth eventually agreed to construct the hospital and to pay all expenses for food and lodging for the patients and those accompanying them. The hospital was named Hiranand Charitable Eye Hospital.

In January, 1910, Dr Henry and his team reached at Shikarpur and formally opened the new hospital. In two months, they performed 1,346 surgical operations, often a hundred a day and sometimes two hundred. Of the 1,346 surgeries, 563 were for cataract. They preached the Gospel too. Some 10,000 people listened to them respectfully and around 1,000 copies of the Gospel were sold. Since then, the hospital functioned for six weeks in the months of January and February every year except for one year when an outbreak of plague hit Shikarpur. In his 55-year-long career, he treated people with an enormous care. Almost all of the surgeries that he performed were successful.

Hiranand died in 1913 and before his death, he had provided fund of Rs.100,000 to trustees to maintain his hospital and to satisfy all the expenses. Regrettably, the trustees mishandled the funds and the hospital started to run short. It depended on personal and institutional funds. The hospital started to charge fees from the well-off patients and provided free treatment, food and accommodation to poor patients.

In the 1920s and 30s, Sir Henry’s revolutionary work in ophthalmology fascinated about 150 ophthalmologists from the US, Canada, Australia and Britain – enough for them to work at Shikarpur hospital under his able supervision. He transformed the hospital into one of the most outstanding healthcare facilities for eye care across the world.

James G. Ravin, MD in his article An Indian Adventure published in Arch Ophthalmol journal in 2003 wrote that Dr. Derrick Tilton Vail Jr. (1898-1973), an ophthalmologist, was appointed as the chief consultant in ophthalmology to the US forces in Europe during World War II. His father, Derrick Vail Sr. was also an ophthalmologist. Ravin writes that the both Vails accompanied by their wives had traveled to India to work at the Shikarpur missionary hospital.

Holland’s doctor sons, Dr. Harry and Dr. Ronald joined in his work as medical missionaries. After Hiranand died, the Shikarpur hospital was in disrepair and there was an urgent need of a new concrete hospital. On the request of Holland and his sons, Lord Hugh Dow, governor of Sindh, and his wife Lady Dow, sponsored a fund-raising drive and collected $35,000 from the well-off Hindus and Muslims of Sindh. The new building of hospital was erected in 1946 and started to work immediately. Meanwhile, Henry, his sons and staff members set-up temporary eye camps in Iran and the Persian Gulf to treat patients and perform surgery.

In 1955, the Evacuee Property Trust Board (EPTB) registered Hiranand Charitable Hospital as a trust hospital and was renamed as the Sir Henry Holland Christian Eye Hospital, more commonly known as Mission Eye Hospital (MEH). The Church Missionary Trust Association, London, looked after the hospital. It was placed under administrative control of CMS Hospital Quetta.

After the partition of India in 1947, the Shikarpur hospital was part of West Pakistan and the state encouraged and protected the hospital. After Henry retired officially from CMS missionary service in March 1948, he said farewell to Pakistan and returned to his home town Farnham. A month after his arrival in England, he was called to Kabul, Afghanistan, to treat the King’s eyes. After two years, he returned to Shikarpur and again started his work there till April 1965.

On his way home, he fell ill and died at the age of 90 years on the 19th of September, 1965. After his demise, his sons and their wives carried on his work. The hospitals remained busier than ever.

He was awarded the Kaiser-E-Hind silver medal in 1910, the gold medal with bar in 1931 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1960 in Manila. He was appointed a companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1929 and a Knight Bachelor in 1936. He was elected a honourary member of the Oxford Congress of Ophthalmology. Besides, he remained secretary of the CMS Punjab Medical Executive Committee for 30 years.

Besides its philanthropic features, the hospital has a monumental building. Viewing the cultural significance of the edifice, the Culture and Tourism Department of the Government of Sindh enlisted it as a protected heritage site.