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Doctor in Arabia 

Patrick W. R. Petrie (1903–1986)

Over a period of nearly eight decades, the Keith-Falconer Medical Mission in Sheikh Othman, Aden, touched the lives of tens of thousands of people in South West Arabia.

The Mission was founded in 1886 by a thirty year old Scot from Aberdeen, Ion Keith-Falconer, a younger son of the Earl of Kintore. In addition to having made his mark in Cambridge as a scholar of Arabic and Hebrew, Keith-Falconer was a lay preacher and a champion cyclist. In 1885 he paid an exploratory visit to Aden where for a few months he and his wife occupied a bungalow situated on a rocky spur to the left of the pass leading down into Crater.1 He was inspired by this visit to establish, initially at his own expense but under the aegis of the Church of Scotland, an educational and medical mission in Sheikh Othman. There he obtained the plot of land on which the mission complex bearing his name was later built. In May 1887, within five months of returning to Aden to set up the mission with the help of a Dr Cowen whom he had recruited in England, Keith-Falconer died, exhausted by recurrent attacks of malaria, the cause of and cure for which were then still unknown.

One of the longest serving members of the Keith-Falconer Mission in Sheikh Othman was Dr Patrick Petrie who, after graduating from Edinburgh, joined the Mission in 1926. He succeeded Dr J. C. Young who had retired after serving in Sheikh Othman since 1893. Petrie was to spend the next twenty years of his life in South West Arabia, including nearly six years in Sana’a between 1937 and 1943.

Petrie first visited northern Yemen in December 1931/January 1932 as a member of a British medical mission sent by the Aden authorities to Taiz. This included a lady doctor (Evelyn Hartley) from Aden’s civil hospital in Crater, and two nurses, and was led by Lieut-Colonel M. C. Lake, a senior Aden government official. The mission was sent at the request of the Governor of Taiz province, Sayyid Ali al-Wazir, whose daughter-in-law (a granddaughter of Imam Yahya) was seriously ill. The girl was duly operated on (for the removal of a tumour) but died a week later. Before returning to Aden, Petrie visited Turba to treat a sick relation of the ‘Amil of Hujjariya, Qadhi Hussain al-Halali. Petrie’s vivid and entertaining account of the British expedition to Taiz (by sea to Mocha, returning overland to Aden via Ma’wiya, Daraija and Museimir) was published by The Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society in 1932.

In 1936 Petrie accompanied Captain Basil Seager, the Aden government’s Frontier Officer, on a visit to Sana’a. Petrie’s medical work during his stay there, particularly his successful treatment of eye diseases in which he was a specialist (and with which the Italian doctors in Sana’a did not deal), so impressed the Imam that he told Seager that he wished to employ two British doctors in Sana’a, one of whom should be a lady.

Dr Petrie and his wife Eleanor, also a qualified doctor and a specialist in midwifery, were obvious choices for this assignment, and the Aden government obtained permission from the Church of Scotland’s Foreign Mission Committee in Edinburgh for them and a nursing sister, Miss Louie Cowie, to be seconded to Sana’a from the Mission in Sheikh Othman. Reporting from Sana’a at the end of 1937 on the work of the British Medical Mission, Petrie wrote:

We arrived in San’a on March 8th and were given a nice, partly furnished house in Bir-el-Azab, one of the suburbs of the town… In the garden there are several additional buildings. One of these has been modified to form a dispensary and amongst them it has been possible to house [our domestic] staff and hospital boys who came up from Aden to work with us… In the third week of July the new hospital [was] officially opened by the Imam… At present… there are some 170 beds available. Of these 80 are for the Army and are under the care of two Syrian doctors who are medical officers to the Army; 60 are under the care of the Italian doctors, and we have about 30.

The explanation for this seeming disproportion in the distribution of beds is that we, at least on the men’s side, are expected to specialise in eye work which is largely of an out-patient nature or requiring only a brief stay in hospital… In addition to the work at the hospital there are frequent outcalls to cases in private houses. This is particularly [so] with regard to [women patients], as, of course, the better class Arab women seldom come out… With regard to outcalls to men, those have included calls to six of the seven Princes who live in San’a as well as to their families and to the houses of the principal ministers of state. Three of the Princes are in prison and two of them are included in the six mentioned above… It was during one of our visits to Sirr [40 miles from Sana’a and residence of the younger Princes during their education] that advice for an operation on the King’s son was given. Later at the King’s request the operation, a tonsillectomy, was performed in our house, and the young Prince, a lad of fifteen, stayed with us till the end of his convalescence. At the King’s command, the Prince Qassem, who is also Minister of Health, with the Foreign Minister [Qadhi Muhammad Raghib] and all other doctors in San’a, was present at the operation.

The Prince was not the only case who stayed with us at the house although he was the only one who lived with us as one of the family. The others stayed in the summer-house in our garden. … Daily, patients come to the dispensary at the house for medicines. Most of these are poor patients who have already been seen at hospital but who are unable to pay the prices charged at the hospital dispensary for their medicines… 2

Dr Hugh Scott of the Natural History Department of the British Museum and and his fellow entomologist, E. B. Britton, were guests of Patrick and Eleanor Petrie during their two month visit to Sana’a in early 1938, and there are several references to the Petries in the delightful vignettes of life in the Yemeni capital, recorded in Scott’s book In the High Yemen (1942).
Italy, since signing a ten year treaty of friendship and economic cooperation with the Imam in 1926, had maintained a sizeable presence in Yemen of medical staff (the Imam’s personal physician was an Italian), as well as engineers and technicians, in its drive to promote Italian political and commercial influence in the region. In August 1937, Mussolini sent Signor Jacopo Gasparini, who while Governor of Eritrea had negotiated the 1926 treaty, with a high level delegation to Sana’a to sign a new treaty. In a personal letter to Seager in Aden, Petrie gave a slightly irreverent account of their visit:

This week San’a has been brightened and cheered by the arrival of a magnificent and splendid Mission from Italy led by Gasparini … All the best cars left the capital to meet them. The Princes at present are going about on motor bikes – at least Qassem [Minister of Health] is, for both his cars have been pressed into Italian service… On Wednesday morning they drove into the city. An onlooker described the scene to me. First came a detachment of Eritrean troops – about a dozen I think. These drove up to the guest house and lined up opposite the doors – I believe a very impressive and well drilled little unit armed with revolvers. Meanwhile, the main party had arrived at Bab-as-Sabah. There Gasparini, Pascaloucci (erstwhile Consul in Aden), three naval officers and two military officers got out of their cars and formed up into a little squad led by Gasparini.

They marched across the square towards the guest house – the route was lined with Yemeni soldiery, each company carrying its flag. Gasparini stopped opposite each flag, turned to face it and gave a flamboyant Fascist salute. This took a fairish time for there was of course a flag nearly every twenty yards. Arrived at the guest house, he was met by the whole Italian colony (males) – he marched upstairs to the roof of the house – across the roof towards the flag… and gave it, too, a Fascist greeting. On Friday the Imam came in from Rowdha, and the party were received by him on Saturday. They rode down on very fine horses, dressed in full unifrom. Six hundred Yemenis and appropriate bands were on parade. I believe it was a very brave sight…’ Petrie added in a subsequent letter: ‘This week H.M. the Imam has received gifts of a tank, two anti-aircraft guns and lots of rich clothing and silk turbans. The occasion was the renewal of the Treaty with Italy for another ten years…

In March 1939 the Petries left Sana’a at the end of their two year secondment and travelled on leave to Scotland with their three year old son, Jim.3 Eleanor was now expecting their second son (Roy) who was born later that year. During the previous ten years Petrie had collected numerous local artefacts: brass, iron and silver metalwork; pottery, stone and wooden objects; leatherwork and basketry. These he passed on to the Royal Museum of Scotland, and today they form part of the Museum’s reserve collection.

Petrie was replaced in Sana’a by Dr Bernard Walker (a young Edinburgh graduate whom Petrie had helped to recruit), while Eleanor was replaced by an old College friend of hers, Dr Sidney Elisabeth Croskery, an Irish-born Quaker and pacifist. Croskery had read about Yemen before having any thoughts of serving there; a fellow Quaker and friend was Muriel Harris, the much younger sister of The Times journalist Walter Harris who had published an account of his travels in Yemen (A Journey through Yemen) in 1893. As Croskery later recalled: ‘When I did travel up to San’a in February 1939, I felt somehow at home in that so very foreign landscape, because my friend’s brother had been there and [had illustrated his book] with little drawings of the tiny hamlets of stone houses perched on the tops of mountains…’ 4 Miss Cowie, who had also departed on leave, was temporarily replaced by Karen Larsen, a nurse from the Danish Mission in Aden, whom Dr Walker was later to marry.5

Writing to K. H. Blaxter of the Colonial Office from his father’s home in Loanhead, Midlothian, in September 1939, Petrie reported: ‘This week I have heard from Dr Croskery and Dr Walker. They both feel that the Italian opposition and unfriendliness is on the increase … Dr Walker in his letter says that both the Minister of Health and Foreign Minister have become extremely pro-Italian recently, and this too may make things very unpleasant for our people’. How unpleasant was made clear in a report by C.A.F. Dundas of the British Council, Cairo, who visited Sana’a in April 1940:

… at present whenever a patient in one of the Italian wards is likely to die he is moved to the British wards; any unsuccessful operation by a British doctor is fastened upon and broadcast by the Italians as incompetence, so much so that in January the Imam was induced to give orders that the British doctors could not undertake operations without first obtaining the approval of Dr Passera. This was, however, shortly rescinded…

Dr Croskery had only agreed to serve in Sana’a for one year but the Imam declined to release her until the Aden government found another lady doctor to replace her. Because of the war, this proved impossible. Eventually, under pressure from Aden, the Imam did allow her to leave but not until April 1942. This enforced two year extension of her tour did not deter Dr Croskery after the War from volunteering to return to Sana’a if the British Medical Mission, which had been closed in late 1943, was re-opened.
The local circumstances arising from the outbreak of war in 1939, and from Italy’s entry on the side of Germany in June 1940, led to Petrie being recalled to Sana’a in the latter half of 1940. Meanwhile, Eleanor with her two sons had travelled to Jamaica where she remained stranded until 1945.
If one or two British officials in Aden may have entertained fears that missionary staff in Sana’a might be tempted to proselytise and thus upset the delicate state of Anglo-Yemeni relations, Harold Ingrams, Aden’s Chief Secretary, did not share them. And he was doubtless mindful of the fact that non-missionary doctors and nurses would cost far more to employ and were unlikely to tolerate the frustrating conditions of service which work at the hospital in Sana’a involved. In reporting on his visit to Yemen between April and June 1941, Ingrams commented:

I have always had an admiration for Dr Petrie, and this grew when I saw him at home and at work in San’ a. The two ladies with him, Miss Croskery and Miss Cowie, are not only most charming but made me wish we had several more like them for welfare work in the Colony and Protectorate. I do not think we realise to the full the admirable work this trio does and how much British prestige has benefited by their quiet work which has made them greatly loved in San’ a and known in distant villages. On our journey I constantly heard Dr Petrie’s name spoken with respect, and on two occasions [I] owed small courtesies from poor people to being mistaken for him. It has several times been suggested that he was being too missionary, but I saw no evidence of this… He realises very well that he has to watch his step, and that if he did actively missionize, his success would be prejudiced gravely…

On this last matter Petrie had made his position clear in a letter to Seager the previous November:

I think you know that my aim at all times is to give people everywhere the opportunity of discovering for themselves that new power and strength in life which I myself have found in Christ… I believe you agree with that aim but feel that local fanaticism may be aroused and that we shall get into all sorts of unimaginable trouble. These things can only be tested by experience, and I think we have now accumulated enough experience to explode the theory that the folks here are so terribly fanatical. They are conservative, and it is highly probable that persecution would be the lot of anyone upsetting their conservatism – but conservatism is not religious fanaticism. That we are missionaries is, I believe, known to every responsible member of this government, and it is my experience that the King himself respects anyone who has sincere convictions, and he once did me the honour to nickname me ‘El Fakee’ [al-faqih] – the religious teacher. And one of his sons in conversation told me that since we had spent so long in Aden and had so little to show for it, they were not afraid of our activities here!! 6… I have always been particularly grateful to Sir Bernard Reilly and the Aden government for leaving us a free hand in these matters, and I am sure they were right. Without the aim in life to which I have referred, life would indeed be a bleak affair, and but for strength outside oneself, I’d soon lose that patience to keep “barid” [cool and calm] which I know is not natural to me…

Petrie’s reference to Imam Yahya’s relaxed attitude will have been influenced by the demonstrably warm reception which the Imam had given to a visiting Church of Scotland Minister from Palestine in January l939. 7
In January 1942 Petrie submitted a further report to Aden on the working conditions of the British Medical Mission:

The Imam’s hospital [now] has some two hundred beds and of these some sixty are under the care of the British doctors (50 in the men’s and 10 in the women’s departments). The other doctors working at the hospital are the surgeon, an Italian, and the army doctor, a Syrian. All surgery, except that of the head and neck and gynaecology, is the province of the Italian surgeon. All medical cases in the army go to the Syrian doctor and the rest come to us… One of the peculiarities of this country is that no foreigner is trusted with administrative responsibility. The superintendent of the hospital is one of the Imam’s slaves. Under him are the heads of the various departments – dispenser, storekeeper, cook – each a chief in his own province – and as the orderlies are all soldiers, there are an officer and two sergeants to supervise that side of the work. The main point of this report is [to draw attention to] the powerlessness of the medical staff under the present conditions… Most of our medical cases come from the prison and from the orphanage school. The hostage system is one of the methods of government here and the hostages are housed in the prison… Among them are some hundred and fifty boys between six and eleven. They are housed twenty or so in a room, a school is provided for them but otherwise they are left to fend for themselves and soon become very dirty and verminous. One result is that typhus and relapsing fever both occur among them. The other small boys who come to our wards come from the orphan school.. While the hostages and schoolboys have made up the bulk of our patients, there have of course been all the ordinary medical conditions: for example cases of Rheumatoid Arthritis, Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Malaria, Leprosy and Disseminated Sclerosis…

The man in charge at the central medical store… holds office by reason of his reputation for economy… [He] sends the month’s supply of hospital needs to another untrained Arab, known by courtesy as the hospital dispenser. The dispenser knows that the central store sends as little as possible, so he hoards as hard as he can, and much of our time is wasted squeezing a minimum of essentials out of him… In addition to his natural reluctance to part with stocks to our wards, the hospital dispenser is inclined to hold up what stocks he does have, especially of dressings, for the Italian wards – because he gets certain gratuities from them. It will be easily understood that any attempt at preventive medicine is very uphill work here. Not long ago a small hostage was brought in moving with lice… Miss Cowie set to work to clean the boy up.. While Miss Cowie was busy with the patient’s head, the storekeeper arrived and made off with the [boy’s] discarded clothes… These he took straight to his store where, no doubt, great migratory movements of infective lice take place to the clothing of other patients.. The storekeepers and such people are not under our control and there is little we can do about it. Our battles with lice are, however, more successful than our battles with bugs. Bugs overrun the hospital. The hinges of the windows, the springs of the beds, the bedside cupboards, the light fittings, the cracks in the doors and walls… are moving with [the] shameless creatures. Recently we went for them in our wards with a blow lamp and scored a short lived victory. A few days later patients told stories of whole armies of reinforcements arriving in our wards from other sections of the hospital… There has also been the battle of the latrines and the battle of the dirty dressings, in neither of these can we claim any material success…

It is scarcely surprising that later that year in a letter to Sir Bernard Reilly, former Governor of Aden now attached to the Colonial Office in London, Petrie wrote: ‘I am glad to have your reaffirmation that much importance is attached to the San’a Medical Mission, for sometimes we on the job get a bit restive and feel like throwing in our hands…’

Under the conditions described by Petrie in his report, it was only a matter of time before a member of the British Mission fell victim to disease. In mid-1942 Nurse Cowie contracted typhus from which she nearly died. Petrie told the Imam that it was essential that she should convalesce in Aden, and obtained his permission to take her down to Aden overland via Yarim, Hammam Damt and Qa’taba. They set out in late August accompanied as far as Ma’bar by the Dutch diplomat and traveller, Van Der Meulen who had been on an official visit to Sana’a from Jedda, and was now returning to Saudi Arabia via Hodeida.8

In early September 1942, Petrie lectured at the British Council in Aden about his journey overland from Sana’a. The text of his lecture suggests a sense of at least temporary liberation from his problems in Sana’a. It begins: ‘The beauty of the hills and valleys of Yemen changes with the seasons, and I think I have never seen it more beautiful than during this last journey from San’a to Qa’taba. From San’a we came to Yarim by motor – from Yarim on foot and on donkeys to Ridhma, then to Damt and so to Qa’taba… [and thence] to Aden by motor.’ At the end of his lecture Petrie expressed the hope that he had been able to convey ‘something of the sense of beauty and wonder we felt as we travelled’. Arab members of his audience will have been intrigued to hear that while staying at Dar al-Rahma, Imam Yahya’s new house in Hammam Damt (a spa of hot springs much favoured by the Imam and the Princes), Petrie had a long and interesting conversation with a local poet, Sayyid Muhammad Hassan al-’Imad al-Dhari who, Petrie commented, would be ‘well known to readers of Fitat el Jizirah [Fatat al-Jazirah].’ 9

A fuller and no less fascinating account of this journey was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1943/44 under the pseudonym ‘William Robertson’. In this, Petrie pointed out that the last European to travel the Yarim/Qa’taba route (albeit in a reverse direction) had been Walter Harris at the end of the 19th century.10
Petrie returned to Sana’a from Aden in early 1943 accompanied by the heroic Miss Cowie, and Miss Anderson, a nurse from the Danish Mission in Aden. In the continued absence of a lady doctor, Petrie proposed that his younger brother, Captain William Petrie, RAMC, who was then serving with the Kenya African Rifles in Assab, should be released to assist him for a period of three months. This was arranged, but William’s secondment had later to be extended when Dr Petrie himself went down with typhus. Outbreaks of typhus in Yemen had now reached epidemic proportions, and conditions were aggravated by severe famine resulting from failure of the rains in 1942. Thousands of people from Tihama sought refuge in the highlands, and outbreaks of dysentery caused by overcrowding, starvation and lack of sanitation added to the country’s rising death toll. Without the authority to ensure the maintainance of even basic disciplines of hygiene in the hospital, the Mission were powerless to help the sick while being daily exposed to the risk of infection. Petrie’s recommendation that the Mission be closed was strongly supported by the Governor of Aden (now Sir John Hathorn Hall) and accepted by the Colonial Office. Its closure was delayed until Petrie was sufficiently recovered to travel to Aden towards the end of 1943. In correspondence with the Colonial Office, Hathorn Hall noted that

it has hitherto always been felt that the grave disabilities under which the Mission has worked and the indignities and obstruction to which they have been subjected have had to be patiently born as the price to be paid for the setting up of a centre of British culture and, indirectly, of British political influence in San’a as a counter to the Italian Medical Mission there, whose political functions were notorious… But with the present developments of the war, Italian influence and prestige in the Yemen are at a low ebb and from a political point of view there is no longer any need to maintain a British Medical Mission in San’a.

In early 1944, after spending sick leave with his family in Jamaica, Petrie took up his new duties as Protectorate Medical Officer, initially concentrating on the urgent task of containing the epidemic of typhus which had now spread from Yemen to Aden Colony and the hinterland. In late 1939, at the request of the Aden government, Petrie had embarked on a medical survey of the Western Protectorate. This was seen as the precondition of any action to extend basic medical services to the region. Some years earlier a small training scheme for tribal dispensers had been initiated with the assistance of the Keith-Falconer Mission in Sheikh Othman, and, until his transfer to Sana’a in 1937, it had fallen to Petrie to supervise up-country dispensaries established under that scheme. The areas which Petrie, together with a young assistant, Dr Ken Seal, covered in 1939/40 included Fadhli, Abdali, Subeihi, Haushabi and Amiri; this left Yafa’i, Audhali and Aulaqi areas and Beihan still to be covered when, due to the war, the survey was suspended in April 1940. Petrie found time to draft his report during the last three months of 1942, and the survey was published by the Colonial Office in the following year. Petrie‘s main proposal – a centre providing three month courses tailored to the specific needs of tribal dispensers and run by Mission staff – was approved. He and his wife, Eleanor, who returned to Aden with their children in 1945, were asked to take charge of the project. Miss Cowie, who had arrived back from home leave in early 1946, was, for a time, involved in the medical training of young tribesmen from the Protectorate. ‘When one thinks’, she wrote, ‘of the background of these boys, and of the fact that some of them can barely read or write, it seems almost too much to expect them to be fit to be trusted with medicines at the end of the course. They do respond well, however. The medicines used are very simple, and a list of doses and the diseases for which they are used, is given them…’ Cowie enjoyed her training role and the opportunities which it gave her to visit and re-supply up-country dispensaries, and to see patients ‘both in their houses and at my tent door’. 11

The Petries left Aden in late 1946, homeward bound for a new life in Scotland, and in the 1947 New Year’s Honours List Patrick Petrie was awarded the OBE for ‘medical services in the Aden Protectorate’. They and their colleagues in the Keith-Falconer Mission epitomise the important, often pioneering contribution which the Mission made over many years to the welfare of the people of South West Arabia.

For their help in connection with the foregoing article, warm thanks are due to: Dr Sheena Petrie, The Rev. James Ritchie, Dr Runa Mackay, Mrs Salwa Jones, Deirdre and Pixie Campbell, and Dr Ulrike al-Khamis (Curator for the Middle East and South Asia, National Museums of Scotland). - The Editor


1 The bungalow, surrounded by other buildings of more recent construction, was still in situ in 2002.

2 The British Medical Mission, whose salaries were paid by the Imam, received a small annual subsidy from the Aden government for the purchase of drugs and materials for use in its private dispensary. For transport, the Mission kept a horse and trap. The Imam’s hospital was situated just south of the Jewish quarter (Qa’a al-Yahud) within the walls of Bir al-Azab.

3 An interesting article by Dr Petrie on medical conditions in Yemen, entitled Some Experiences in South Arabia, was published in The Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in December 1939.

4 Dr Croskery’s autobiography Whilst I Remember (The Blackstaff Press, Dundonald, 1983) gives a spirited account of her career in South Arabia, where she served in various medical appointments until she left Aden in 1967.

5 After leaving Yemen, Dr Walker worked with an Anglican mission in Hebron. In 1948 he joined the Keith-Falconer Mission and served for several years as Protectorate Medical Officer. There are references to him in Nigel Groom’s memoir of Bayhan (Beihan), Sheba Revealed (2002).

6 A significant exception was the conversion of Dr Ahmad Sa’id Affara (1910–1968), which was influenced by his contact as a young man with Dr Petrie. Affara received his medical training in Edinburgh and Liverpool, and worked for some years at the Mission Hospital in Sheikh Othman before moving to Scotland with his Palestinian-born wife, Nasra (1919–2003). They are buried in the same cemetery at Loanhead, Midlothian, as their close friends, Patrick and Eleanor Petrie.

7 This was the Rev. G. L. B. Sloan from the Scottish Mission in Tiberias, on a private visit to Yemen as Dr Petrie’s guest. Sloan, an Arabic speaker, accompanied by Petrie, spent an hour in animated discussion with Imam Yahya; he later recorded their talk at the request of Col. Lake in Aden. Dr Petrie, a son of the Manse, neither concealed nor advertised his own status as an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland.

8  Van Der Meulen devotes a chapter of his book Faces in Shem (John Murray, 1961) to Dr Petrie and his work in Sana’a. But his account contains factual and other distortions, and should be treated with some caution.
9 Fatat al-Jazirah was the first Arabic language newspaper to be published in Aden.

10 An earlier article by Petrie, under the same pseudonym, entitled San’a and The Qat-eaters was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine in September 1942. Characteristic of this and of Petrie’s other published work are his facility with words, his keen eye, his breadth of vision, and his sense of humour.

11 In February 1952 the Keith-Falconer Mission posted the indomitable Miss Cowie to Beihan to set up a medical centre there. It took her six days of desert and mountain travelling to reach her destination. But regular visits to Beihan by the RAF kept her in touch with Aden. Dr Croskery spent a year at the Beihan centre in 1954/55, and in her book gives a graphic account of the often harrowing cases which she and Cowie had to deal with.

August 2005