The Keith-Falconer Mission 1886-1963

by H K Robertson

This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1995

The founder of the mission was Ion Keith-Falconer, the son of the Earl and Countess of Kintore of Keith Hall, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. He was born in Edinburgh in 1856 and became a student at Trinity College in 1874. Outstanding in mind and spirit, he was equally so in body being 6' 3" in height and being champion cyclist of the county. He was appointed Lecturer in Hebrew at Clare College and, later, Professor of Arabic in the University, a more or less nominal appointment involving only one lecture a year. It was not only classical Arabic he wanted to master, but colloquial as well, so a visit to Egypt in 1881 extended both his knowledge of the language and of the people of Islam. More and more his thoughts turned to Aden which, since 1839, had been a British possession and had a strategic position, both as a depot for foreign trade and as a point at which caravans from the interior converged. It had contacts also with the Jewish world in which his knowledge of Hebrew and more particularly of Arabic could be used.

So, in 1885, Ion Keith-Falconer went there on an exploratory visit and decided to start a mission among the Arabs. During this visit, four convictions grew up in his mind, the first that in the new enterprise medical work should form a prominent part and in this ‘he might be able to help the doctor a little’. Remembering a day when a piece of paper had been thrust into his hands with the words written on it, ‘If you want the people to walk in your way, then set up schools’, and finding the children ‘much more hopeful than the adults’, he hoped to start a school. Then he decided that not Aden but Shaikh Othman should be the centre of the new Mission and he also made up his mind that, instead of being freelance, he should be recognised by the Free Church as her honorary missionary, it being his intention to hand over the mission buildings, when erected, to the Church of which he was a member. Returning to Britain, he spoke to the General Assembly of 1886, when the new mission was formerly recognised. In December he arrived back in Aden, this ‘English Sahib who spoke Arabic like a book’, accompanied by a doctor, for whose salary he was responsible. Five months later, in May 1887, he died, exhausted by frequent attacks of malaria of which, in those days, neither the cause nor cure was known.

The Rev. W Gardiner, who was appointed to Shaikh Othman along with Dr Patterson, a medical man whom Keith-Falconer had tried to see when he was searching for a colleague to go out with him, opened a school, which carried on for a number of years until it was decided, in 1904, that the Danish Mission, which had begun work in Aden, should concentrate on education, while the Scottish Mission should devote itself to the medical side. In the latter sphere, many doctors played a part, the climate, however, taking heavy toll until more was known of the art of maintaining health in the tropics. In length of service, however, an outstanding exception was Dr. J.C. Young, who was appointed in 1892 and who remained at work until 1926. In 1897 the Ion Keith-Falconer Memorial Church was built in Aden, with Dr. Young acting as Chaplain to the troops that worshipped there.

In the twentieth century, the First World War provided a dramatic break in the usual course of events. The Turks suddenly descended on Shaikh Othman and carried away everything of value in the new hospital opened a few years before. Most of the fighting between Turks and British took place around Dr. Young’s bungalow, which bore the marks of many a bullet. During the latter part of the war the town became an armed camp and missionary work was perforce in abeyance.

The report for 1923 tells of the reversal of the decision made in 1904 to concentrate on the medical side; a school was opened and there was a return to the ideal of Keith-Falconer to have a mission that was both educational and medical.

Shaikh Othman had been regarded not only as a good centre in itself, but also as a spearhead into the interior. At the beginning of the century there was discouragement at the failure ‘once again’ to get to Sana’a, the capital of the Yemen. In 1937, the situation had so changed that an invitation was given to Dr. Petrie by the Imam and the Foreign Minister to go and live and work in Sana’a at their expense. A twice repeated invitation was given to send a doctor, ‘A religious - a holy one’, to the people of Baihan, in the far interior of Arabia. The invitation was at last accepted and, in 1952, a new mission station was established there. Another great encouragement was the handing over to the Mission Council (1946 report) of the responsibility of training dispensers for the Protectorate, the government meeting the expense. These young men were to receive their training at the Shaikh Othman Hospital and then return to work among their own people in simple dispensaries, where they would be visited periodically by the mission doctors. Running for some ten years under Mission auspices, the scheme did much, not only to alleviate pain and suffering, but also to create in its nineteen dispensaries, scattered at distances from 60 to 200 miles from Aden, a spirit of good-will and friendliness to Christian work and the Christian missionary. Pioneers in the training of these dispensers were Dr and Mrs Napier and two nursing sisters, Miss Bain and Miss Cowie. Subsequently the training was centred at the Levy hospital, Khormaksar. Drs Bernard Walker, Ahmed Affara and Raymond Smith were the last mission doctors to be involved in this work taken over by the government in 1956.

Abyan, which has no rainfall of its own, benefits tremedously from floods, but even in the 1940s, the land was unproductive and life was unsafe and unhealthy. Those who escaped the bullet and the dagger of the assassin were smitten down with malaria. By 1953, through good administration, the blood feuds had been settled and, under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, malaria was brought under control. This latter work was part of the Aden Protectorate Medical Service and was carried out successfully by the Keith-Falconer Mission in Aden.

The hospital stood at Shaikh Othman from before the turn of the century and there was no village within four hundred miles which had not heard of it. Many patients came long distances to it on foot, sometimes travelling for three or four weeks; but many came too late. Yet when the hardships of the road are known, it is surprising that any came at all. There were no inns. There were many dangers on insecure routes. At times there were robbers and there was always sickness and exhaustion. There was no shelter from the merciless sun. Two, three, five, sometimes ten years of pain and suffering elapsed before a patient could bring himself to face the hardships of the long uncertain journey.

There were in all some eighty beds in Shaikh Othman hospital and as a rule, they were all occupied. If a sick man had come a long way and there was no bed, he was given a mattress on the floor. About half the work in hospital was surgical and consisted of treating bladder stones, hernia, piles, orthopaedic conditions, camel bites, injuries incurred by falling off trucks, camels or trees; cataracts, trichiasis, gynaecological conditions and a hundred and one other troubles were dealt with. On the medical side there was malignant malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis of the lungs, glands and bones, tropical ulcers, bilharziasis, vitamin deficiencies, pneumonias, yaws, venereal diseases and many more, both common and rare.

A succession of doctors and nurses worked steadily for many years. From 1893 to 1926 the Rev. Dr. John Young built up the hospital with skill and meticulous care, Dr. Petrie followed Dr. Young and for twenty years his work in Aden and the Yemen was very much appreciated by the people and governments of both countries. In 1936 Dr. and Mrs Pat Petrie and Miss Cowie were seconded by the Church of Scotland to serve the Imam of the Yemen at his capital, at Sana’a. The Boys Brigade and the Life boys did valiantly in adopting Drs. Affara and Smith and in replacing the ancient equipment in the operating theatre with an entirely new outfit of instruments, steriliser, table and shadowless lamp, and the hospital’s first X-ray plant complete with all accessories and other necessary hospital furniture was installed in the early 1950s.

Very large outpatient clinics were held four days a week, two for men and two for women and children. Probably a hundred or more were seen on each occasion. Tuesday was the chief operating day. If distinction between major and minor operations could be made, one would say that six to eight majors and half a dozen minors were performed each Tuesday. Friday was generally kept for operations on the eye, such as catact extraction, iridectomy, trichiasis, enucleation and whatever else cropped up along this line. Of course, emergencies were always tackied as the occasion demanded. A tremendous number of poor, undernourished patients came in with great tropical ulcers. Infection quickly spreads when small cuts and bruises on a devitalised body become infected, and ulcers, vast and horrible enough to shock any civilised layman, develop. The patients required two or three months of excellent feeding before they were fit to send home.

Over a long period of time, doctors of the Mission cared for the Jewish community in Crater, and this became a tradition mutually welcomed. In the late 1940s, Mrs Affara started the first milk scheme in Aden; she started on her own with the blessing of the council, the support of her husband, and the financial backing of the local population. Seventy children came daily for milk. They also received cod liver oil and calcium and any requiring hospital treatment were admitted. The success of the scheme led to the government opening smaller centres in other parts of the Colony.

Although inevitably associated with the Colonial power, the Mission was received with a hospitality and friendship traditionally very dear to the Scottish heart. Through many trials of climate and sometimes devastating disease, the Mission was sustained and encouraged by the people of southern Arabia. They were also sustained at every turn by the civil and military authorities, both Arab and British.

A dedication to the people, unencumbered by financial reward or power seeking, was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Keith-Falconer Mission.

November 1995