The Swashbuckling Life Of A 19th-Century Medical Graduate From Lahore

The Swashbuckling Life Of A 19th-Century Medical Graduate From Lahore
Syed Sher Shah was born around 1844 in the walled city of Lahore in Mohalla Sathan, Kucha Loon Chakhan inside Bhati Gate. His father Syed Qutb Shah was a successful hakim, and an absentee landowner. Being a Syed, he also indulged – in addition to practicing hikmat (Unani medicine) – in some spiritual counceling by prescribing/ writing talismans (taweez).

After finishing high school, Sher Shah, against the wishes of his father, sat in the entrance examination of the just established Lahore Medical School and was admitted to the Urdu-medium class.

Flat-bottom Indus boat. Boats like this one plied the river from Attock to Sukkur in the 19th century. Boat travel came to a halt with the construction of barrages on the river

Behind his father’s opposition to his son studying Western medicine was the general attitude amongst the Muslims that to study Western medicine was against the tenets of Islam. Furthermore, he did not want his son to work for the infidel British after graduation. But that is exactly what the son did. According to the oral history of his family, the father would not allow him to study late in the evening and would, despite protestations by the son, extinguish the kerosine lamp and candles. The tension between Sher Shah and his father persisted until the death of his father Hakim Qutb Shah in 1876.

We don’t know much about the student life of Sher Shah, except that while at medical school, he commuted to school on foot. From the information culled from copious notes he made in his textbooks, he lamented studying in extremely hot weather in Lahore. He was a poet of sorts and wrote about the misery of student life, and of the hot and humid summers of Lahore. Here are a few the couplets he wrote:

Khudaia hum kahan javein yahan se

Bohat tang ho gai hum appni jan se

(O God where could we go to escape this misery

I am really fed up with my life)

Agar iss trah ki garmi rahe gi

To ik din jan bhi jaati rahe gi

(If this accursed hot weather persists

It would be the end of my life)

He also wrote about spending three years in medical school and getting a salary of 12 rupees in government service after graduation:

Poetry about student life was inscribed by Sher Shah in one of his textbooks

Agar seh saal guzrain khairiat se

Tub hovain mustahaq bara rupay ke

(If I survive these three years (of study)

Only then I would become eligible for twelve rupees (a month))

As a medical student, he helped with the cholera epidemic in the city of Lahore in 1862 and received a certificate of commendation (parvana-e-khushnudi) by the lieutenant governor of Punjab.

Soon after his graduation, the old tensions between Sher Shah and his father reemerged when the father arranged son’s marriage to his niece. Sher Shah refused, but in the end succumbed to the entreaties of his mother. Soon after the festivities were over, Sher Shah left Lahore for his first posting as Native Doctor in Paharpur, located 30 miles north of the city of Dera Ismail Khan. As was the custom at the time, the new bride stayed behind with the in-laws. The ill-fated marriage ended two years later, when the young bride died of fever, leaving behind a year-old son.

While a student, Sher Shah, received this testimonial (Parvana-e-Khushnudi) from the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, for his work during the cholera epidemic in Lahore

It didn’t take long for the affable young man to become popular in Paharpur. A swashbuckling handsome man, he took risks in treating serious and hopeless cases. He would often go in the countryside on horseback, accompanied by an assistant, to see patients and try new remedies that he had read in the two journals that he received every month from Lahore. From those journals he learnt how to mask the extreme bitter taste of quinine by giving the medicine in chewing paan, where the sweet qiwam would mask the bitter taste of quinine. I am sure that in addition to Western medicine, he also practiced some Unani medicine and spiritual counseling. One can imagine the young doctor treating an abscess by incising and draining the pus, prescribing some kushta or tonic and writing a talisman.

He was enjoying his work, but he was also lonely. On an official visit to Peshawar, he met the other branch of his family who had settled down in Peshawar. He married a girl from that family and took his bride to Paharpur. However, he remained estranged from his father and as the tenuous connection with Lahore faded with the death of his first wife, he was now more connected with Peshawar.
From the information culled from copious notes he made in his textbooks, he lamented studying in extremely hot weather in Lahore

In due course, he had four daughter and one son during his 13-year stay in Paharpur. One daughter died young, and three other daughters and the son survived to adulthood. Every 5-6 years, Dr. Sher Shah would bring his family to Peshawar for few months. The way in which they traveled is rather interesting.

Address label of Paharpur Hospital where journals were sent to Dr. Sher Shah

From Paharpur, the family would travel on camelback for a 210-mile hard journey to Peshawar. For safety reasons, Sher Shah and his family traveled with a caravan going north to Peshawar. They would cover an average of 30 miles each day. They would camp each evening, cook the meals, rest and continue the journey the next day. The men walked alongside the camels whilst the women rode in litters called kujawas, mounted on camels.

The return journey to Paharpur was via the Indus River, traveling in a flotilla of flat-bottomed sailboats that plied on the river in the 19th century. From Peshawar, they would travel in tongas – horse-pulled carriages – to Nowshera, located on River Kabul 26 miles east of Peshawar. The tongas also carried mail, as well as other passengers. They would change horses at Pabbi, which is the halfway point between Peshawar and Nowshera. The night would be in Nowshera and next day, the flotilla would start the journey towards Attock where the Kabul River joins the Indus.

Here is an account of one of the daughters of Sher Shah:

Two camels, showing the litter called kujawa - for ladies to travel in

“It was awfully hot and cramped in the small cabin on the boat. We would pray hard for the day to end. At each stop, the women would light up cooking fires using camel droppings and wood, and prepare evening meal. At least while traveling on the camels, we did not feel suffocated and could breathe easily. We would reach Attock the next day. At Attock there was a boat bridge near Akbar’s Fort. When our boats approached, a few boats would be taken out from the bridge to help us pass through. We were always frightened to be passing by the fort because the water was rather fast and there were many rapids in the river, and the wooden boats would creak and splash when going over the rapids. After spending five days on the river and camping just beyond the Attock Fort, Mukhad and Kala Bagh, we would reach Kalor Kot on the fifth day. It is located on the eastern bank of the River Indus and there were special boats that took people, animals, and cargo across the river to the small town of Rangpur. From there, it was only one day’s camel journey to Paharpur. It was always delightful to get home.”

After serving in Paharpur for about 12 years, Dr. Sher Shah was transferred to Hangu, a small town southwest of Dera Ismail Khan, located 70 miles from Peshawar, close to the Afghanistan border. It was now relatively easy for him and his family to travel to Peshawar compared to the arduous land and river journeys from Paharpur. In due course, he bought a house in Peshawar City and shifted his family there. An added urgency was the education of his son. Hangu being closer to Peshawar than Paharpur, he was able to make frequent trips to see his family.

A method to give quinine to a patient

When he was just settling down in Hangu, he received the news of his father’s illness and that his ancestral home was in urgent need of repairs. Dr. Sher Shah applied for leave and at the same time asked the Nawab of Hangu to put in a good word to the British authorities on his behalf. The letter from the Nawab to the concerned authority was written on September 17, 1876. I am sure he got the leave and was able to go to Lahore and tend to his ailing father, who he had not seen in many years.

In or about 1895, he was promoted from his designation as Native Doctor to Sub Assistant Surgeon and posted in charge of Central Jail, Peshawar. It was, at the time, a prestigious appointment for natives. That was the most tranquil and peaceful time of his life. He enjoyed his new designation and also his status as the elder of the Syed clan of Peshawar. He retired in 1901 and started private practice at his home in Mohalla Machi Hatta within the walled city. It was in his clinic that the family found him sitting in a chair with his head resting on the table in front of him. He had died peacefully from an apparent heart attack. He was buried in a small plot of land outside Gunj Gate on Hazar Khani Road that he had bought for ten rupees for his family graveyard.

He was 58 years old at the time of his death.

The above profile of Dr. Sher Shah was put together from oral history of his family, and his journals and textbooks. I must mention that Dr. Sher Shah was my paternal grandfather.


Author’s Note:

This essay, and the one preceding it, was based on a lecture delivered on the 125th anniversary of King Edwards Medical College on the 17th of December 1985.

About 10 years ago, I wrote to the Vice Chancellor of King Edward Medical University and offered to donate my grandfather’s textbooks and medical journals to the university. That material is an invaluable record of the early history of the institution. However, my letter went unanswered. The following year, I happened to into run the vice chancellor at the annual convention of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in North America (APPNA). I mentioned my letter, but he denied receiving it. His fast-talking assistant assured me that they will be grateful to receive the material and that I will hear from them soon.

That was eight years ago.

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery and an Emeritus Professor of Humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. He is the author more recently of A Tapestry of Medicine and Life, a book of essays, and Hasde Wasde Log, a book of profiles in Urdu. He may be reached at: