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Dr Pennell’s mission became a multi-faith school on the edge of the Himalayas

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Missionaries, Religion on Thursday, 9 January 2014

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This edited article about medical missionaries first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 505 published on 18 September 1971.

In the Himalayas, picture, image, illustration

Dr Pennell took his pupils camping in the foothills of the Himalayas

Everyone who knew him expected Dr. Theodore Pennell to have a brilliant career in London. He was urged by his friends to set-up practice in Harley Street, where he would make both a reputation and a fortune. But his choice of a “living” surprised and dismayed his admirers.

As soon as he completed his medical studies at London University he volunteered for service with the Church Missionary Society. “London already has enough good doctors,” he said. “I want to work somewhere where I am really needed. I would like to help sick children who have no proper doctors to attend them.”

After making careful enquiries, he decided that he would be of most use in the hills of Northern India, where the sick were tended to only by travelling hakims, or doctors, whose methods of healing were primitive and painful.

Having made his choice, Dr. Pennell then began to learn the local languages, Persian, Pushtu and Panjabi. To someone completely unaccustomed to the strange and difficult tongues it was an arduous task. But the doctor was used to overcoming obstacles, however long it took.

He was born at Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, in 1867. His father was a doctor, and the young Theodore proved to be a sickly, ailing child. Until he was thirteen he could not play games or join in the boisterous fun of his schoolmates.

Then, after years of struggling against bad health, he suddenly became fit and strong. By the time he was twenty he was over six feet tall, and as sturdy as any man he knew. But his long period of illness had left its mark, and he resolved to spend his life helping children as weakly as he himself had once been.

So, in the winter of 1892, he sailed to Karachi, the chief port of what is now Pakistan. He landed there in November and spent the following year in the extreme heat of Dera Ismail Khan. He then moved to the remote town of Bannu, which was to be his headquarters for the rest of his working life.

There, to his horror, Dr. Pennell found that the usual way of treating wounds was to bind a piece of wet sheepskin over the injury. The unfortunate patient was then fastened to his bed and left for two or three days to “recover.” Occasionally, to the hakims’ surprise and delight, the sick man did get better. Frequently he did not.

To begin with the new English doctor was regarded with deep suspicion. The hakims feared he would take their captive patients from them, and the patients were frightened that his “magic medicines” might be even more unpleasant than the cure by sheepskin.

But he gradually overcame the natives’ superstition and resistance. He built a small mission school in the town, and began to treat the paupers and beggars who were too poor to afford the hakim’s fees.

As soon as the beggars were well again they spread the news that the English doctor had cured them painlessly and at little cost. This reassurance quickly brought Dr. Pennell many new patients – some of whom came from as far as two hundred miles away.

Then the doctor made his first significant convert. One day a young Afghan boy was brought to the mission. His father, a merchant, had died while on a pilgrimage to India. Now the boy, Jahan Khan, was an orphan. He had no real home to return to, and no relatives who could take him in.

The doctor took pity on the young outcast and appointed him as his assistant. Jahan Khan was allowed to deal with all the minor cases of cuts and bruises, coughs and sneezes. And when his master was out visiting the more seriously ill patients, he ran the school and the surgery on his own.

As the months went by so the mission grew in size and importance. A hospital was added to it, and parents began to send their boys to be educated whether they were Christians or not. Dr. Pennell became known as “The Children’s Doctor.” He treated everyone alike, and his classes were made up of Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

During the holidays he took the boys camping in the Himalaya foothills. He found that, apart from a thirst for knowledge, they also wanted to learn how to play the “most English” games of football and cricket. Like many dark-skinned races they proved to be talented at both, and before long the mission’s soccer team was winning matches and supporters wherever it played.

Encouraged by their local success, Dr. Pennell managed the boys on a tour of Northern India. They went as far afield as Calcutta, where six of the players were almost kidnapped in the bazaar. Word had got round that the Bannu team was looking for new talent, and the jealous Calcutta “fans” were determined to discourage any such soccer “theft.”

When the tour ended, and the team returned to Bannu, Dr. Pennell decided that, for the time being, his work in the town was over. The children were now happy and healthy, and the mission school could be left in the capable hands of Jahan Khan.

Instead of having his patients come hundreds of miles over rough mountain tracks to see him, the doctor felt he should go out and visit them. So dressed in the yellow robes of a sadhu or wandering hermit, he set off on his travels – by bicycle!

He was a strange sight as he spent the winter of 1903 pedalling along the mountain roads, and tramping through jungles and swamps with his machine slung across his shoulders. Everywhere he went he treated the sick, and took no money from them. He slept where he could and depended entirely on charity for food.

This was in keeping with his belief that missionaries should be more concerned with spreading happiness than in counting the number of converts they had made. He also thought that they should work without expecting any praise or reward from those whom they helped.

“The young missionary,” he wrote, “. . . sometimes ignorantly imagines that the people round him in India will recognise what he has denied himself in order to come among them, and will respect him in due proportion. Poor deluded man!”

One of Dr. Pennell’s great triumphs was his reformation of a much feared outlaw called Chikki. He visited the outlaw’s camp when word was brought to him that the men there were ill. He knew he was risking ingratitude if he cured them, and almost certain death if he did not. But this did not stop him from making the thirty-six hour journey up into the hills.

He spent as much time there as was needed to put every man back on his feet again. Chikki was so impressed by the doctor’s skill and integrity that he personally guarded him with a rifle, and made sure that none of his followers paid the Christian with a knife or a bullet.

Despite failing health, Dr. Pennell continued with his work until his death in 1912. His original mission then had four branches, and he was honoured throughout the whole of India. “The Children’s Doctor” was missed by both children and adults alike.

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