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  • Writer's pictureEve Loftus

Colonial Medical Students at Trinity

When sifting through the lists of Trinity students in the Dublin University Calendars, it soon became evident that the majority of students arriving to study at Trinity from other parts of the British Empire in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries came to study Law. It was not until 1910 that I found someone studying anything other than Law: Isa Charan, who earned a Diploma in Public Health. Taking an interest, I found that Charan’s medical career, as well as those of other medical students, were a window of sorts into the history of medical practice in the British Empire. The four students detailed here demonstrate a pattern of colonial citizens coming to Britain and Ireland to study in order to practise medicine in Asia or Africa. Some served in branches of British colonial governments or companies, while others practised privately, but they are all evidence that Trinity was once a pivotal part of the British imperial network.

Isa Charan was the first student of colour I found studying Medicine at Trinity, but his studies did not begin at Trinity. He became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Practitioners and the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and then a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1902. According to The Medical Directory, a directory of physicians practising in the U.K., Ireland and abroad, Charan was practising in Akyab, Lower Burma (now Sittwe, Myanmar) in 1905. Charan was in Trinity in 1910, and alongside earning his Diploma in Public Health he worked at Rotunda Hospital. His time in Dublin was brief. By August, 1910 Charan had moved to Rangoon (Yangon, Myanmar) where he married an English woman and was an Assistant Port Health Officer. Charan was part of the Medical Department of the East India Company as a Burma Civil Surgeon , which likely explains his movement throughout Burma; after Rangoon, Charan worked in Henzada (Hinthada, Myanmar) and Prome (Pyay, Myanmar). By 1935 Charan had retired and was living in Wembley Park, Middlesex, England. He died there in 1952.

Charan was not the only Trinity student to serve a British colonial institution as a doctor. Kanhaya Lal Kapur began his medical training at Lahore Medical College in 1904. Like Charan, Kapur then studied in Edinburgh before earning his Diploma in Public Health from Trinity in Trinity Term, 1914. Kapur does not have a presence quite as extensive as Charan’s in The Medical Directory or in other documents, but he is listed in 1920 as a captain in the Indian Medical Service in Partabgarh, Oudh, India (Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh). The Indian Medical Service (IMS) was a military medical service with some civil responsibilities first founded in 1763 in Bengal. Medical professionals in the IMS were assigned military ranks according to their medical rank. Kapur’s captaincy meant that he was working as a surgeon. By 1925 Kapur was no longer a captain, but was still in Partabgarh. Trinity actively prepared white Irish students for colonial service; for example, the college ran a programme that offered all the requisite studies to enter into the Indian Civil Service until 1940. Charan and Kapur, however, are evidence of students from colonised countries in Asia independently pursuing careers in colonial medical services by ways of Trinity.

Of course, not everyone followed the same path. Ahmed Ahmed Shafik studied at Trinity for nearly a decade, from 1920 to 1928, and then seems to have set up a private practice in Cairo, Egypt. Not many students of colour studied at Trinity as undergraduates. Many students listed had actually studied at Oxford or Cambridge and earned ad. eundem degrees from Trinity. Others, like Charan and Kapur, came to Dublin for just a year or two for an additional degree. Shafik began at Trinity in 1920 as a Junior Freshman and progressed through a myriad of exams. He studied Physics and Chemistry his first year, Botany and Zoology his second. He was a Supplemental Junior Moderator in Legal and Political Science in 1924 and passed his Midwifery exam in 1925. Continuing on, he finally earned a Master’s degree in Obstetric Science in 1928. In 1930, Shafik was recorded in The Medical Directory with an address in Cairo where he remained until at least 1942, when I lost trace of him. Considering his lengthy time in Trinity, his permanence in Cairo would not be a surprise.

Shafik’s last year in Trinity overlapped with the year Pritmila Mehta arrived for her Diploma in Gynaecology and Obstetrics. Mehta was one of the very few women I came across in my research. Trinity only began accepting women in 1904, and as the University Calendars show, the majority of women in the first half of the twentieth century were admitted to study Education. Mehta had followed the same path as Charan, becoming a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and a Licentiate of the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow before coming to Trinity for a further diploma. After earning her diploma in 1927, Mehta went to Dariaganj (Daryaganj), Delhi, India and worked with a male doctor. In 1935, Mehta was working with a different doctor in Bombay (Mumbai), where she stayed until at least 1942. Mehta’s specialisation in gynaecology and obstetrics suggests her commitment to women’s health. The early twentieth century was a notable period for the advancement of women’s healthcare in India, and Mehta was active in this field as one of the few Indian women doctors. Mehta’s story is not only a piece of medical history in colonial India, but also of the history of women medical students at Trinity, and specifically women of colour.

All four of these students present exciting lines for further research. That which links them is their time at Trinity as medical students, and although they all went different ways after their time at Trinity, their stories reveal one of the ways in which Trinity interacted with a transnational network that had its beginnings in the British Empire.

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