This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99

Henry Holland, medical missionary in India

Posted in Historical articles, Medicine, Missionaries on Thursday, 18 August 2011

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Henry Holland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1027 published on 14 November 1981.

Henry Holland, picture, image, illustration

Henry Holland became a specialist in eye-disease on the Indian sub-continent, by Clive Uptton

Hunting, shooting and fishing – the traditional activities of an English country gentleman – were the chief interests of Henry Holland as a young man. Born at Durham in 1875, he spent much of his youth in the border country of Northumberland. Later, his education at Loretto School, near Edinburgh, helped to make him the seasoned sportsman that he always remained.

It was not long after his 18th birthday that Henry decided on a career in medicine. He was later to admit that this was “in order to avoid going into the church”. Both his father and grandfather had been clergymen but Henry, though a sincere Christian, wanted to do something different.

While studying medicine at Edinburgh University, he began to seriously consider taking up the work of a medical missionary rather than become an ordinary doctor. And in 1900 he responded to an urgent appeal for a volunteer to go to Quetta, in Baluchistan (now part of Pakistan), so that the only missionary doctor there could go on leave.

In those days Quetta was an important mountain outpost of the Indian army. As it was close to Afghanistan, there was often border warfare involving the Afghans and the fierce Pathan tribes. The tribesmen’s life was very primitive, and there was plenty of work to be done at the Mission Hospital to which the young Dr. Holland was posted.

He soon found that the commonest complaints were various types of eye disease, many caused by deficiencies in diet. He had no special training in their treatment, but found that “experience is the best teacher”.

Within a few years he had become quite expert in the surgery needed to cure the form of progressive blindness known as cataract (which affects the lens of the eye, causing dimness of vision). In time he became an authority on this and other eye diseases, at the same time dealing with many kinds of sickness and injury, often under the most primitive conditions. There was much hard travelling by horse and mule, and Henry’s early skill at riding proved a great advantage.

He spent year after year in this work, extending the mission hospital and opening up clinics in other centres. In May, 1935, he survived the disastrous Quetta earthquake. In less than a minute, this left over 30,000 people buried in the ruins of their homes. Holland was buried in the rubble of his house, too, but he managed to escape and played a leading role in ensuring that medical aid reached those in need, and particularly in preventing the spread of disease after the earthquake.

Thanks to his enthusiasm and enterprise the devastated hospital was rebuilt and its important work continued; work that was expanded when Dr. Holland was joined by his two sons, who had both become doctors also. In 1936 he was awarded a knighthood in recognition of his great services to medicine, and his reputation gained international standing in 1948 when he was invited to advise on the condition of the Emir of Afghanistan.

Although Sir Henry formally retired at the age of 73, he continued to take great interest in the work he had begun until his death in 1965. He had given over 50 years of service in what is still a remote part of Asia.

As a lasting tribute, there are still thousands who owe the recovery or preservation of their sight to the courage and devotion of Sir Henry Holland.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.