The amazing Dr. Honigberger who lived in Tehsil Bazaar

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Jul 8, 2013


Every time I walk along Tehsil Bazaar just off Bazaar Hakeeman inside Bhati Gate, my mind’s eye goes back in time and I think of Dr. Johann Martin Honigberger, the famous surgeon from Kronstadt, now known as Brasov in Romania.

The connection is not as far-fetched as most would have us believe, for Dr. Honigberger was an outstanding allopathic doctor of his time, who after meeting in 1834 the pioneer of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, and remaining his student for two years, started practicing a mix of the two systems. The result was that he came up with vaccines against the plague and cholera. He was the first European allopathic doctor in Lahore and was appointed ‘doctor to the Lahore Darbar’ and was personally present when the maharajah died.

For quite some time I have been researching this doctor in the Lahore Darbar, and the whole of last week was reading his book “35 years in the East”, a rare book printed in 1852 by H. Bailliere of 219 Regent Street, London. This leather-bound rare book is kept in a safe in the huge ‘Rare Books Section’ of the University of Cambridge’s main library, and one is allowed to read it only if rested on a cushion. My interest in this man rests solely on the reason that he was present when the major events of the Sikh era took place, and he has recorded them in his huge collection of memories and a detailed list of the plants and medicinal ingredients that were then available in the bazaars of Lahore. “These bazaars are surely the finest in the East that I have seen,” he says.

Dr Honigberger was born on March 10, 1795, in Kronstadt, now known as Brasov in Romania. The name Kronstadt is of Germanic origin and under the Hapsburg Empire it was so named. Its original name was Brasov, which is of Turkish origin, with the word ‘brasov’ being pronounced as ‘bras’ and ‘su’, which in Turkish means ‘pure’ and ‘water’. Dr. Honigberger uses the word Kronstadt, so that is what we will call it. After completing his schooling there, he joined a medical school and practiced in a pharmacy in the town. He continued his higher studies and graduated with a M.D. degree. He then moved to a well-known pharmacy in Bistrita.

At the age of 21 he set off on his first adventure by travelling to Istanbul, then called Constantinople, reaching the city in December 1816. There he set up a practice and for the first time experienced the ravages of plague. His success there led him to be hired by the Governor of Toccata, who took him to Aleppo in Syria, then under Turkish control. In 1819 he took a ship in Jaffa and reached Cairo, where again he experienced the killer disease plague. His experiments on plague patients led him to believe that most diseases have their origin in the electro-magnetic system on which humans function. This led him to Baghdad where he set up his practice and was a great success.

It was in Baghdad that he learnt of the four French generals (Allard, Ventura, Court and Avitabile) serving Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who was in the process of setting up a modern army to counter growing British influence. He was told that they did not have a single doctor there and he would be hired immediately. So armed with a reference letter from a famous Dr. Swatada, he set off on an adventure to reach Lahore.

The route he took was to Basra, from where he went to Sheraz. Here he purchased a servant named Antun, who was to remain loyal to him all his life. Back to Basra he caught a ship and arrived at ‘Bender-Karatshi’, now known only Karachi. He purchased two camels and set off to Hyderabad, and then moved to Khairpur, where he fell seriously ill. After recovering he kept on and reached Lahore in 1829.

When he reached the city, the four French generals and the Maharajah were away doing battle in Peshawar. So he waited and when he returned initially maharajah ignored him. In the meanwhile Gen. Allard’s adopted son, named Achillian, had fallen seriously ill with a “fistula on the spine”. Dr. Honigberger treated him and word spread that after all the ‘hakims had given up, this ‘gora’ had brought him back to life’. Then one day the maharajah summoned him and told him that if he wanted to prove himself, first he must treat his favourite horse which was “suffering from ulcers”. This the doctor did, and soon the maharajah took a liking for him and offered him command of an artillery regiment. “I politely informed him that I was a doctor not a soldier”. But the maharajah wanted to do something for him and decided to make him superintendent of the gunpowder factory.

As luck would have it the son of Rajah Dhyan Singh, the prime minister, had, in battle, suffered a bullet wound to the head, with the bullet still lodged in the skull. On this young man Dr. Honigberger performed a very delicate operation and removed the bullet. After four months the young man was back on his feet. It was this operation that convinced the maharajah that Dr. Honigberger was no spy, but a genuine doctor. He immediately attached him to his court and allowed him to open his surgery in Tehsil Bazaar. That building was knocked down and in its place two newer ones stand today.

Dr. Honigberger became close friends with the Fakeer family of Bazaar Hakeeman, whose great great grandson even today lives in their old house called the ‘Fakeerkhana’. In 1832 Fakeer Nuruddin introduced him to his patient, a 60-year old man who could not live unless a poisonous snake bites him every month. Dr. Honigberger writes: “This small man’s perspiration has a peculiarly offensive smell similar to the smell of a snake. My research told me that these strange human species exist only in Punjab, or among the original inhabitants of North America. The snake common to both lands is the ‘amphisbaena’ and not the ‘dumuha’ (two-headed) as is wrongly ascribed.”

Dr. Honigberger examined the blood samples of this man under his microscope and took samples of it back to Europe for research. Another strange patient which Fakeer Nuruddin once introduced him to was a ‘fakeer’ who consumed arsenic every day to stay alive. Dr. Honigberger informed Fakeer Nuruddin that he had met a physician going from Kabul to Bokhara who also consumed arsenic to stay alive. He was at a loss as to whether this was possible, for his scientific mind could not comprehend this possibility.

In 1834 Dr. Johann Martin Honigberger returned home to Kronstadt and went to meet the pioneer of homeopathy, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, in Paris. The two spent weeks exchanging their experiences, and Dr. Hahnemann was most fascinated by the snake venom treatment. But the result of these meetings was that Dr. Honigberger was convinced that the best way forward was a mix of both methods, depending on the condition of the patient. He was also convinced of the electro-magnetic treatment of patients to avoid diseases.

By this time Maharajah Ranjit Singh had fallen very ill, and he sent word through his French generals to Dr. Honigberger to return immediately. The kind doctor describes Maharajah Ranjit Singh in these words: “He lost one eye in childhood due to small pox. He was remarkably short and very delicate. His outstanding feature is his remarkable memory. At heart he is a very kind man. He rarely does what is expected of him and invariably moves contrary to what the astrologists tell him. On the dark side he is devoted to sensuality, strong spirits and opium”. In my years of studying Maharajah Ranjit Singh, this is the most accurate description of the man.

Dr. Honigberger returned to Lahore in 1838 and was present when the maharajah died. He also witnessed at first hand the murder of three maharajahs after that. In my next column I will dwell on the way Maharajah Ranjit Singh died, on how he treated the cholera outbreak of 1840, how he witnessed the in-fighting for power at first hand, and how he set up Lahore’s first mental hospital and hospital for the poor.




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