Sir Henry Holland of Quetta balochistan
The surgeon in charge of a mission hospital on India’s
wild North- West Frontier was jarred awake, the night of
May 30, 1935, by a thundering roar. The room rocked and
pitched, to the sound of fearful crashing and the screams of
patients in his nearby hospital Before he could struggle
from his cot amid falling debris, a huge weight knocked him
This was the Quetta earthquake, one of the most disastrous
in world history. In a few seconds it reduced the city of
60,000 to rubble, killing outright some 24,000 of its people.
The 60-year-old missionary came to consciousness amid
the deathly silence following the quake. Then, suddenly, he
heard a shout through the darkness. It was his son, also a
doctor and his assistant, who too had miraculously escaped
death. The surgeon painfully lifted his head and called out
in his high-pitched voice, "For Pete’s sake, Harry, get me out
of here. There’s work to be done!"
Frantically the son tore at the hill of rubble, and in 15
minutes the two were organizing rescue efforts. The hos-
pital compound with its facilities for 130 patients, two op-
erating theaters, laboratory, large dispensary and X-ray plant
built up from almost nothing through 35 agonizing years of
effort was a shambles. Many of the patients and hospital
staff members were dead or dying. The missionary surgeon
limped about, furiously bandaging the wounded, directing
the removal of hundreds of corpses, giving thousands of
injections to stave off an epidemic of cholera.
Meeting perils was nothing new to Dr. Henry Tristram
Holland. When I saw him, in 1957, at 82 years of age he was
still meeting them and bringing Christian profit from them.
A man small of stature and puckish of countenance, his un-
spectacular appearance ‘belies his spectacular record and
repute as one of the world’s foremost eye surgeons. During
his 56 years in the border country between Afghanistan and
what is now Pakistan, he gave back sight to more than
In recognition of his life-service to the tribes people of the
North- West Frontier, and for his contribution to ophthal-
mology, Holland was knighted in 1936 by King Edward VIII
the only surviving missionary knight since Sir Wilfred
In Sir Henry’s youth there was nothing to forecast him
in the role of either knight or missionary. Son of an Anglican
country parson, young Henry decided to "go into medicine
to get out of the church." While studying at Edinburgh
University, however, he fell in with students intending to
become medical missionaries. Moreover, many of the medi-
cal faculty, he found, were devoted Christians, active in the
University Christian Medical Association. Here he was im-
pressed by such speakers as Henry Drummond, propounder
of love as ‘The Greatest Thing in the World," and Charles
Studd, a famous cricket player. One day he noted over a
mantel a cryptic motto, "Not for ours only." Asking its mean-
Ing, he found it was from I John 2:2 "And he is the propitia-
tion for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins
of the whole world." Responding to the summons to selfless
living, Henry finally applied to the Church Missionary So-
ciety, a foreign missions arm of the Church of England.
Holland offered to go to Nigeria, but was told, "We’re
sending you to Quetta/’ Mystified, he demanded, "Where’s
that?" He soon found out. The North- West Frontier, with
Quetta as its southern bastion, was a rough land of Kipling-
esque people and storied history. Its rocky desert wastes, bar-
ren hills and bloodstained passes such as the famed Khyber
had for 3500 years known the tread of invading armies. In
this no man’s land he found a racial mosaic of nomadic Bra-
huis, swarthy Baluchis, marauding Pathan tribes devoted to
blood feuds and banditry. The Frontier tribesman was a
strange medley of the swashbuckling brigand cruel, treach-
erous, fanatical and the brave, proud, individualistic lover
of freedom, deeply religious according to his lights. Tall,
bearded, with deep-set fiery eyes and hawk noses, the Pa-
thans disdained all laws laid down by modern governments,
ruling themselves by tribal "Customary Laws" that were old
before America was discovered.
Because their land could not produce crops, the tribesmen
"farmed" the passes by raids on passing caravans. Almost
every family had a blood feud going. The tribes were no-
madic, grazing their camels, flocks and herds in the Baluch
and Afghan uplands all summer, then streaming through the
passes toward the plains of India in the winter. To keep
these hordes of free-ranging peoples in check, strong British
garrisons policed the Frontier.
The mission at Quetta, started in 1886, was one of a chain
of stations begun not by missionaries but by British officers
and enlisted men with an enlightened idea of Christianity’s
responsibility in colonial rule. They raised funds among
themselves, petitioned the Church of England to send out
clergy and doctors, then supported them for years.
Among such Christian soldiers was Major General Sir
Herbert Edwardes, who stood one day at Khyber Pass and
warned his men not to think "this immense India has been
given to our little England for no other purpose than our
aggrandizement. Empires come into existence for purposes
of the world’s Creator."
Young Henry Holland reached Quetta in May 1900, to
find a plague raging in Karachi, with people dying in the
streets. On the long 400-mile journey to Quetta, he traveled
by pony, camel and on foot across the hot sands of the Sind
Desert, trekking with the tall, hawk-nosed tribesmen carry-
ing their homemade rifles with curving stocks inlaid with
brass and their great curved swords bright with semi-pre-
The mission station seemed to him an audacity, a tiny but
brave assertion that Christianity cares for both body and
soul. Such caring, he soon learned, could be costly.
Aroused by mullahs, the powerful Moslem religious lead-
ers, tribesmen often went on rampages, murdering Afghan
converts to Christianity, Indians and British as apostates in
Islam’s eyes. To the fanatics, the killing of an "infidel" was a
pious act. Prior to Holland’s coming and during his first years
on the Frontier, scores of missionaries and their converts
provided Moslem warriors with such passports to paradise.
Converts to Christianity suffered even more wholesale re-
prisals. On the Frontier it was a proud Moslem boast that
"no Afghan turned Christian has ever returned to his own
country and lived/’ One convert, son of a Moslem judge in
Quetta, was seized, spirited in chains to Kabul, the Afghani-
stan capital, cruelly beaten then given a chance to recant.
When he refused, one of his arms was hacked off, then the
other. Still refusing to recant, he was beheaded. However, a
witness to the man’s martyrdom later wrote Holland: "The
remembrance of the light and peace in Abdul Karin’s face
has haunted me through the years. Tell me the secret of it."
This man too was converted and later executed for his
Holland prayed nightly that *1 may scorn the way of
safety, so that Thy will may be done." To his hospital staff
he said: "If we Christians cannot out-live and out-love any
other religion, we don t deserve to win."
He left no patient in doubt as to the motivation behind
his treatment. Before each operation he would say a short
prayer, endeavor to make every healing technique a "testi-
mony to the tender mercy of God." Asked why he mixed
Christian evangelization with medical treatment, he snapped:
"I am a missionary doctor. The Christian medical man who
says everything about the body and nothing about the soul
is not doing his full duty."
When a prominent Moslem leader hotly demanded why
the mission tried to convert his people, Holland deftly took
the wind out of his angry sails by saying, "We love your
people, and so we want them to have the best-in religion
as in medicine. Since we think Christianity the best of reli-
gions, we cannot be selfish with it any more than we can
withhold from those we love the best medical skills and
medicines we have."
When the 25-year-old doctor first came to Quetta his hos-
pital boasted only a few beds and almost no modern equip-
ment. His own experience in surgery, as a student at Edin-
burgh, had been limited to opening a few abscesses and
presiding at a birth or two. But such was the pitiful plight
of the people, particularly during plagues and epidemics,
that he soon was treating almost all ailments in the medical
glossary. He wrote home: "If you ever see P.C. after my
name, it won’t mean IVe been made Privy Councilor; it’ll
stand for piles and cataracts!"
Cataracts particularly. This ailment was common along the
Frontier, and the pathos of the blind touched him deeply.
He soon discovered not only a special facility but his greatest
satisfaction in curing blindness. And as word of his skill got
about, tribespeople came in droves to be cured.
One day an old couple, both completely blinded by double
cataracts, stumbled into his compound. They had not seen
each other for years. Holland operated, then placed them in
beds side by side in the hospital ward. Days later, when the
bandages were removed simultaneously, they looked at each
other with first unbelief, then sheer enchantment. As the
two old people went into each other’s arms, tears of joy
flowing down their faces, Holland wept with them.
Whole families would arrive at the compound, bringing
along children, animals, chickens. A patient quartered in one
of the wards would tether his camel outside, and one or
more relatives would bed down beside him. Some tribesmen,
who had never slept under anything but a tent roof, balked
at the wards. For the sake of tradition and family solidarity,
Dr. Holland always accommodated them. One family, with a
small son needing a bladder stone removal, slept in their
bullock cart with the bull in the compound outside. In a
temporary shelter serving as a pile ward, the doctor one day
found a horse tethered next to a patient. Humorously, he
asked if the horse suffered from the same complaint and
let him stay.
The Quetta hospital, growing without plan or design, be-
came a helter-skelter assortment of annexes and scattered
family wards. After the earthquake, the present modern,
reinforced-brick 200-bed hospital, with four operating the-
aters, delivery room, X-ray laboratory and nurses’ training
school was erected mostly from funds raised personally by
Sir Henry during a tour of England and a public appeal put
on in his behalf by the London Times.
A further impressive monument to Sir Henry’s skill with
both lancet and religious diplomacy is the famous Shikarpur
Hospital 200 miles southeast of Quetta. One of the largest
eyes clinics in the world, it can care for as many as 600
patients at a time.
Shikarpur, an exclusive Hindu city, had been closed tight
to Christian missionaries. But in October 1909, Holland was
approached by Seth Hiranand, a Shikarpur banker and phi-
lanthropist who for some time had been sending patients to
Quetta. "Why do you not come to my city?" he asked. "I
will provide many patients, pay all expenses."
Arriving in the forbidden city, Holland found hundreds of
blind and sick swarming about the grounds of Hiranand’s
estate. He set up an operating theater on the large scimitar-
shaped verandah and went to work, fighting flies and dust
and clamorous patients. He stayed three weeks, performed
more than 400 operations. Before he left, the banker brought
him a large bag of rupees and a proposition. "Doctor Sahib,"
he said, "as you have seen, there are many here who need
your skills. You will come again next year perhaps annu-
Cannily, the little surgeon replied: "I will, on condition
that you build a suitable hospital, housing for patients, and
underwrite all expenses." The banker agreed readily. Squat-
ting on the floor, Holland drew preliminary plans in the
verandah’s dust. That done, he arose. "There’s one other con-
dition," he said. "If I come, I must have the right to preach
When the conditions of the project became known, a city-
wide uproar arose. A big mass-meeting denounced the plan
for Christian infiltration. Hiranand sat through the angry
speeches, then rose to win the day by quietly saying, "If
you will find a surgeon as great as the Doctor Sahib, one
who will heal our blind and sick, and yet not preach Chris-
tianity, I will agree with you. Shall the thousands of our
people who need treatment be denied it by our prejudices?"
Getting news of the victory, Holland chuckled: ‘Til bet
Shikarpur is the first city in the world to be opened to Chris-
tianity at the point of a cataract knife."
Next year, he found in that city a beautiful little hospital
ready for him, with two well-equipped operating rooms,
plentiful housing accommodations and 500 new patients
waiting. The reputation of the Shikarpur clinic, in full-tilt
operation each January-February, spread rapidly, until Hol-
land and his associates were performing as many as 1200
cataract operations and 2000 other major surgical procedures
during the six weeks the clinic operated. Leading ophthal-
mologists traveled across the world to observe the Holland
Among them were many Americans. One, Dr. Derrick Vail
of Northwestern University Medical School, tells of finding
Sir Henry’s aura everywhere about the hospital and its
compound. "I was not fully prepared to grasp at once the
striking character of this dynamic and expert eye surgeon.
But in a few moments his simple and compassionate nature,
radiating from his inner warmth, embraced me and I knew
that here was a very great and good man."
Another American took Holland back to the States with
him for a vacation in 1928, pressed him to join his staff to
ultimately succeed him as head of one of the Midwest’s
largest eye-ear-nose-and-throat hospitals. When Holland
shook his head, the eminent doctor offered a fabulous salary,
saying archly, ‘Tm told that every man has his price, Sir
Henry." The missionary surgeon laughed. "I’m afraid you’ve
been misinformed. You can’t put a price tag on a fellow’s
love for his people."
During his long career, he was offered many other high
medical posts. Always he turned them down.
Holland early found that his compulsion to bring sight and
healing to the needy could not be contained by Quetta and
the several out-stations he established. Nor could his adven-
turous spirit. With British political and military officers he
argued that if he could go with them, "throwing pills about
and applying the proper sort of ointments," he might "help
to reduce the temperatures" of troublesome tribesmen.
He proved his point one day at a remote village on the
Baluch-Persian frontier where a team of British agents had
to deal with a difficult border bandit named Dost Mahomed.
The bandit, whose murdering and pillaging had thrown the
whole area into chaos, rode up on a prancing stallion and
with five of Bis sub-chiefs inarched into the desert tent for
the meeting, rifles in hand, bandoliers of cartridges criss-
crossing their sunburned chests, surly and defiant.
While the negotiations went on, getting nowhere, Holland
slipped out, slung a medicine chest over his shoulders and
crossed the frontier into the walled city where 1500 of Ma-
homed’s followers were encamped. For hours he treated the
sick, and when he returned to the place of conference 300
of them came with him, singing praises for the help he’d
brought. The bandit came out, still fuming at the Britishers’
demands. But when he saw the crowd of his own people,
happy over Holland’s ministrations, he and his men laid down
their guns. The British agents used the truce to depart hur-
riedly. Afterward, Holland was told, "Dost Mahomed came
to the conference determined to loll the whole party. You
stopped him cold."
Alone, or with a mission colleague, he went out among
the tribespeople in areas where seldom a white man had ever
been seen. Through the craggy hills and sunblistered valleys,
he would travel for days on pony back, or on a riding camel
"the most uncomfortable conveyance known to man." When
he came upon a cluster of glowering Pathans, he would dis-
mount to treat diseases, patch up wounds, perform delicate
For these proud people, whom powerful British forces
could not conquer, he conceived a lasting affection. And
they for him. He moved through their forbidden areas un-
armedand unharmed. While he performed his operations,
the tribesmen would gather around curiously. He employed
them as screens from the dust and sand, put fans in their
hands to keep the flies away.
To win the tribesmen’s confidence, lie joined them in rid-
ing, fishing, shooting. In appreciation for his services, they
would come at day’s end to his campfire, offering with great
dignity gifts of their poor best: a joint of mutton, fruit, a
hand-made rug, a trinket.
On one tour, he had just finished treating a tribe and was
about to go when news came that a band of bloodthirsty
Afghan outlaws had slipped over the border and were in the
vicinity. But, he was assured, "They will not harm you."
Later he learned that his friends had sent outriders ahead to
throw around him an invisible circle of protection.
Wherever he went the tribesmen would seek him out.
On one occasion, while on a brief holiday in the Himalayan
foothills, a group of Pathans came leading a woman with
double cataracts, They pointed to her, saying simply, "Doctor
Sahib . . ." The only instruments he had with him were a
pair of iris forceps and a cataract knife. But from the wife of
a companion he borrowed nail scissors, tweezers and a cro-
chet hook; from a hairpin he improvised an instrument to
hold the eye open. Then, sterilizing his strange instruments,
he went to work. Five days later, when the bandages were
removed, the operation proved a complete success.
During another trip deep into the desert he came to a
small oasis, found a cluster of Baluchis hovered over a man
groaning in pain and near death. The man had fallen 30 feet
from the top of a date palm tree, badly ruptured his urethra;
his bladder was distended almost to the bursting point.
Having only primitive surgical instruments with him, Hol-
land punctured the bladder, contrived a drainage tube from
the metal case of a clinical thermometer, smoothed it down
with files and emery board, and bandaged him up. Being
60 miles from the nearest railhead, 140 miles from the
nearest hospital, the little doctor hoisted his patient onto a
camel for the long desert trek, breathing a prayer that sepsis
would not set in. Arriving at the railroad station after 24
hours with his patient, he found that the next train was not
due for 36 hours. Keeping his patient alive by sheer will
power, they reached the hospital two long hot days later.
Holland operated again, found the wound aseptic, his man
on the road to recovery. "God is great!" chorused the Ba-
His reputation spread among the highly placed as well as
the lowly. He treated the Rajah of Shigar at his capital 200
miles from the border of Tibet, on one occasion was flown
to Kabul to save the sight of the King of Afghanistan. One
day he received a message from one of the most powerful
of the Frontier chieftains, the fabulous Wali of Swat, noted
for his antipathy for missionaries. But his need was greater
than his intolerance: he was going blind would the Doctor
Holland traveled by foot through the passes beyond Mala-
kand, where the Wali and his people had attacked the British
and where Sir Winston Churchill served as a war corre-
spondent. Finally he came to a setting like a page out of
The Arabian Nights. After saying the first Christian prayer
ever heard in the palace, Sir Henry operated successfully on
the Waifs eyes. Afterward, they became fast friends, often
went hunting together.
Not the least of Sir Henry Holland’s achievements for
Pakistan and the North- West Froatier is his role in bringing
Moslem women into the 20th century. When he first came,
women had their place in the rigid seclusion of ‘
Wives were bought like cattle. Hospitals were "men only 9 ‘
institutions. Sir Henry’s mission established a hospital for
women in the Quetta compound, convinced husbands that
it was an economic waste to allow a wife to wither and die.
One of his weirdest tasks was the replacing of women’s
noses. Extremely jealous, the Pathan’s tradition allowed him
to chop off a wife’s nose at the slightest suspicion of infidelity.
Later, discovering her innocence, he was likely to regret his
action, bring her to the hospital for repairs. One, when told
that the operation would cost 60 shillings, hesitated until
the doctor asked, "Is it not worth the money to have a wife
with a nose?" The tribesman replied, "That’s a hard ques-
tion, Doctor Sahib. You see, for 75 shillings I can buy a new
Sir Henry also gave Moslem and Hindu womanhood an
important boost up the social and professional ladder by his
program for training nurses and hospital technicians. In
1900, the idea of any proper Moslem girl working outside
the home, let alone in a hospital, was abhorrent. Holland,
always hard pressed to staff his hospital, put constant stress
on the dignity of serving one’s fellows in need, on a people’s
responsibility to help care for its own.
For years the backbone of his nursing staff came from the
outcast and depressed classes, many of them second genera-
tion Christians. His mission’s nursing schools were the first
to give women not only training but graduate standing and
certification. Today the daughters of Pakistan’s best families
are being trained as doctors and nurses.
For more than a half century Sir Henry worked toward the
the day when his hospital could be taken over completely by
indigenous leaders. "It is always a missionary’s happiest
achievement/* he says, "when a Christian institution can be
handed over to nationals, and is no longer a work done for
them but by them."
In 1939 Sir Henry reached his society’s retirement age, 65
with no hankering to quit. Shortage of doctors in World
War II gave him the excuse to ask for an "extension for the
duration." He managed to extend the extension to eight
In the spring of 1948, when he was 74, having seen his
son Ronald succeed him at Quetta, he took what he thought
was his final departure from the land and people to whom
he had given his life. But he had hardly got back to England
muttering darkly at the "foolishness of a system that retires
a man in his prime" when word came that tribal chiefs had
made up a purse to bring him back for a period each year.
Ever since, he has spent his winters on the Frontier, his sum-
mers going up and down England recruiting missionaries and
stimulating British youth to selfless service.
Speaking to an assembly of London young people in
1956, he chided them for modern youth’s preoccupation
with security, their hesitancy toward pioneering. "The grave
is secure," he said, "but terribly dull. Serve your age well
and security will take care of itself!"
When someone once asked why, with talents that would
have brought him vast material gains, he gave himself so
selflessly to healing the hurt of mankind, he replied, "Re-
member what a chap named Mallory said when he was
asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest? ‘Because it’s
there!’ Thaf s my answer, too."
Quetta’s mission hospital was originally established in 1886, and had been rebuilt after the earthquake. In the courtyard there were small cottages forming the caravanserai where patients were nursed by relatives who also took care of food and cooking.
Throughout the day, electric amplifiers and loudspeakers alerted us to the call of the muezzin, reminding our Christian medical island of the dominant culture that lapped against the walls of the hospital compound. Purdah (seclusion) and veiling were still upheld in Quetta despite its cosmopolitan community. The hospital had a segregated women’s section, the zenana wards.
The hospital served the city and the region, catering particularly to the trans-border nomadic Pathans who moved down through the Bolan Pass to the southern plains during the winter, returning to the hills of Afghanistan during the summer. Accordingly, these tribal nomads had two opportunities each year to benefit from Western medicine.
Cataracts and neglected chronic diseases were common presentations, as was diarrhoea. I myself suffered diarrhoea on several occasions and progressively lost weight during my stay. Faecal tests positive for blood and/or amoebae sentenced one to amoebicides; negatives dictated sulfas, to which my bugs responded.
The diarrhoea was surely related to the town’s contaminated water supply. Irrigation water from the city’s reservoirs flowed through the streets alongside the footpaths. Using removable paddles, the waterman selectively diverted the flow into separate open channels for individual sections of the town on given days. Not surprisingly, the water reaching our vegetable gardens in the hospital compound was murky. This public health issue didn’t seem to agitate either the city authorities or, in general, the Western doctors!
In winter, the hospital ran an outreach clinic at Shikarpur, 200 miles to the south. Many such clinics, known as "cataract camps", were held on the Indian subcontinent under missionary auspices, foreshadowing the Fred Hollows Foundation.
Cataract surgery and other procedures
Every operation began with a Christian prayer. For the anxious patient, this was extra premedication. Local anaesthesia was used for cataract operations — patients’ eyelids were kept open during the procedure with a pair of locally made fork retractors, handheld by the assistant, one of the male nurses trained in the hospital’s own program. Graefe section with conjunctival flap was standard, progressing to intracapsular extraction. I carried out over 100 cataract procedures in my 10 weeks, and many plastic operations on eyelids and tear ducts. I treated one patient with retinal detachment. I also assisted at numerous general surgical procedures and outpatient clinics.
Tagged: , ‘DR SIR HENRY HOLLAND’QUETTA MISSION HOSPITAL, CMS , ÇHURCH , MISSIONARY , SOCIETY” , balochistan , baluchistan , shikarpur , christian , christianity