The Hospital that Began with a Fall from a Horse

DR. SAYED AMJAD HUSSAIN on the story of Peshawar's Lady Reading Hospital and his own memories of it

The Hospital that Began with a Fall from a Horse
Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) has been part of me, for all of my life. During my childhood, it was a treat to go to the hospital to visit some sick relative. When in medical college, I attended various teaching wards as part of my medical education. After graduation 1962, and before coming to the United States, I worked there as a surgical house officer. And then I returned to Peshawar and LRH after finishing surgery training in the United States. And even after leaving Peshawar for the United States, I returned every year and taught at Khyber Medical College and Lady Reading Hospital.

A fall from a horse was responsible for the establishment of this hospital in Peshawar. Sometime in the early 1920s, the wife of Rufus Daniel Issacs, the Viceroy of India, came on a visit to Peshawar. Lady Issacs, who carried the title of the Marchioness of Reading, expressed her desire to see the imposing Balahisar Fort, located adjacent to the northwest corner of the walled city. On the way to the fort, she suffered a bad fall from her horse that required immediate medical attention for her injuries.

Lady Issacs, the Marchioness of Reading

At that time, there was a small hospital on Egerton Road within the old city and a small military hospital in the cantonment, about 5 miles away. Her fall and the relative dearth of medical facilities led Lady Isaacs to start a campaign to build a state-of-the-art hospital in Peshawar under the shadow of Balahisar Fort. She persuaded prominent landowners in the region to donate money and added her name to the original donor list. In 1926, at the time of commissioning of the hospital, it was named in her honour and for the past 100 years it has been called Lady Reading Hospital. It is also called Jarnaili (as in an army Jarnail or general) Hospataal in Pashtu and Waddi Hospataal in Hindko. What started out as a few-hundred-bed hospital now has more than 1,000 beds.

Spread over hundreds of acres of uneven hilly terrain, initially the hospital was comprised of a number of different buildings that functioned as acute and chronic care wards. In addition, there was a medico-legal ward, operating theaters and the Bolton Block that catered to the medical needs of well-to-do and well-heeled patients. A well-maintained garden in front of the Bolton Block was a delight and used by patients and visitors alike. In the past one hundred years, many new additions have been made.
At that time, there was a small hospital on Egerton Road within the old city and a small military hospital in the cantonment, about 5 miles away

There was and still is a separate zanana, or women’s hospital, adjacent to the main hospital and located at a higher elevation. There were also two long barracks that had been converted into residential accommodations for long-term patients. Each unit was comprised of two small rooms and a small back yard. In the farthest corners of the back yard was a kitchen and a toilet. Family members stayed with the patient and provided extra care. A small room at the end of the barrack was the nurses’ station where a solitary nurse, more often than not, sat napping.

Staff of Surgical C Unit 1962
L to R: Author Dr. Amjad Hussain, Dr. Fazle Rabi, Dr. Iffat Siddiqi, Professor Habib Rahman, Dr. Zeb un Nisa, Dr Ijaz Ahsan, Dr. Nisar Ahmad

My earliest memories of LRH date back to when I was perhaps four-year-old. We would go to visit a sick relative, usually in one of the residential quarters where an abundance of seasonal fruit and snacks brought by visitors were of special interest to us. As children, we had a great time enjoying the snacks and running around the hospital as the elders visited with the patient. Our favorite pastime was to run down the ramp that connected the lower levels of LRH with the elevated sections and Zenanna Hospital.

Later in 1957 when LRH became the teaching hospital for the newly established Khyber Medical College, one of the barracks—New Brierly Ward—was used for accommodation for the house staff.  In 1962, during my yearlong house job in surgery at LRH, I was assigned to one of the quarters that I shared with a friend.

The Bolton Block

It was at LRH that I was first introduced to orange marmalade. During my Islamia College days, I went to LRH to call upon my English teacher, Professor H.M. Close, who was in Bolton Block recovering from a surgical procedure. As we were talking, the matron of the hospital, Sister Alexandra came in to visit Mr. Close. Mr. Close made the introduction and after politely acknowledging my presence, she went on to talk with Mr. Close.

Sister Alexandra was an imposing, stately, middle-aged woman who carried herself with dignity and poise. Close to six feet tall, she could stare down any man that included some doctors also. On her watch the hospital was always spick and span, wards clean, patients taken care of and no one allowed in the wards except during visiting hours.

“Michael,” she told Mr. Close, “I have brought you some marmalade.” She put a small glass jar on the bed stand. Mr. Close beamed and thanked her profusely. While they talked, I kept looking at the jar and wondered what was in that jar. Observant Muslims are always preoccupied with finding out the exact nature of imported foods. So, I wondered if the jar contained some pork product. Later, Mr. Close told me it was orange jam. He let me taste it and I liked it. That was almost 60 years ago and to this day I enjoy my toast with orange marmalade.

Surgical Block

As a medical student and later as a house officer, I saw the hospital from a different perspective. No longer were the patients just abstract objects populating a hospital, they became real, and I became part of their quest to regain health. It was however overwhelming and depressing at times. There were some patients who spent weeks and months on the surgical ward with no cure in sight. The patients with severe burns were among those patients. Relegated to the end of the ward, they were hard to take care of and many succumbed to malnutrition and infection.
As a medical student and later as a house officer, I saw the hospital from a different perspective. No longer were the patients just abstract objects populating a hospital, they became real, and I became part of their quest to regain health

After a hard day’s work, we would come to our quarters in New Brierly Ward and enjoyed peace and quiet. Occasionally, we would sit on the wide veranda in front of our rooms to have tea. Often, we would have Connie Francis singing in the background.

Jan Alam, a fellow house officer, lived in the quarter next to mine. He had an old gramophone on which he played a solitary record of Connie Francis over and over again. It was a 45-rpm record that on one side had Lipstick On Your Collar, and on the other side, Stupid Cupid. It was annoying to listen to those two songs ad nauseam. We even tried to break into his room to steal the record but were not successful. So, we put up with the annoyance until we finished our house job.

In the initial few months in America, I was very homesick. I went to a music store in Toledo to buy some desi music. While browsing in the store, I came across records of Connie Francis. Instinctively, I bought the same 45-rpm record that had annoyed my friends and me so much. That was the only music I bought on my visit, and I played it ad nauseum in my apartment.

Upon my return to Pakistan from the United States in 1970, I was appointed assistant professor of surgery in Khyber Medical College and assigned to Surgical C Unit at LRH. That was the unit where I had done my house job under my mentor and teacher, Dr. Habib Rahman. For me it was the dream job. I was privileged to start heart and lung surgery in our unit and initiated weekly interdisciplinary rounds and a teaching conference there. The old guards did not like the innovations, but there was nothing much they could do except to bad-mouth me. After working there for over a year, I left Peshawar and returned to the United States in 1973. However, I continued to visit LRH during my yearly visits to Pakistan for teaching students and house officers.

My last visit to LRH was of an emergent nature. In 2014, I was in India when I received a message that my younger sister Surraya was critically ill and was admitted to LRH. I rushed to Peshawar and went straight to the Bolton Block, where she had been admitted. On the way, I had the notion of losing her in LRH—as I had so many of my family members over the years in that hospital. However, by the time I reached Peshawar, she had improved and was able to carry on a conversation.

That evening I sat on the steps leading to the Bolton Block and took in the comings and goings of the visitors to the surgical block across from where I was sitting. I thought of my childhood visits, of visiting Mr. Close in the same Bolton Block, and of my days as a medical student and later as a house officer and faculty member.

I remembered our young romances, professional mishaps, friendships, and transitory animosities and much more. And I thought of all the wonderful teachers and colleagues I had at this place. The names of Hakim Ullah Jan, Syed Ali Raza, Nasiruddin Azam Khan, Syed Ali Raza Gardezi, Habib ur Rahman, Qazi Abdul Jabbar, Zakia Minhas, Alaf Khan, Rahim Gul and many others are still remembered by a multitude of their patients and legions of their students.

I was glad that a century ago, Lady Reading, a high society lady, had a nasty fall from a horse in the same general vicinity where this hospital was later built. A hundred years later it still carries her name and her legacy.  n

Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at

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: