The early morning sun beat down on the sick and frail as they gathered in the yard of Dr Lillias Hamilton’s Kabul surgery. Her wide-brimmed hat offered her some protection from the harsh rays as she worked her way through the queue of men, women and children who had come seeking help from the European woman doctor whose skills were so admired that they had been engaged by the most powerful man in the land.
Dr Hamilton’s slight frame, overshadowed by towering Afghan men, was deceptive. She was certainly no frail Victorian shrinking violet. Indeed, she was among that remarkable breed of pioneering women with Scots blood in their veins who trampled over 19th-century convention only for their achievements to eventually be largely forgotten. Yet during an extraordinary period as the court physician to the fearsome Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan – at a time when women medics faced prejudice across Europe, never mind in a country known to be less than welcoming to European incomers – she combined her royal duties with caring for the poorest while risking her own safety to document life in the court of “The Iron Amir”.
While in the Afghan capital, Dr Hamilton would play a significant role in easing its people through cholera and smallpox, going on to introduce vaccinations for the latter and substantially reducing the disease’s impact.
Eventually joined by her sister and another nurse, she turned her Kabul home into a hospital where she combined the medical skills she had learned in Edinburgh with traditional treatments described in the Quran. However, her keen sense of justice and her decision to document events within the Amir’s court, writing of his ‘iron’ rule, his harem and political blunders, as well as challenging male and female roles, made her a target.
Despite playing a pivotal role in caring for its people, she would eventually flee Afghanistan in fear for her life. Her story is now being told in the revered Journal of The American Institute of Afghan Studies, which explores how, having met prejudice at home, she launched a clinic in Calcutta and became a victim of a cholera epidemic that left her debt-stricken and eventually led her to the court of the Afghan ruler.
That Dr Hamilton is so unknown in the country of her forefathers and where she was raised comes as no surprise to historical novelist Sara Sheridan, whose book Where are the Women? highlights the lack of female representation in Scotland’s statues and street names. “It’s time to get better at remembering the achievements of our pioneering, innovative and sometimes revolutionary foremothers,” she said. “Unfortunately, Lillias’s legacy, like that of so many other amazing women, is largely forgotten.“We’re missing half of our history, which means that we don’t know the real story of where we come from.”
Although she was born in New South Wales, Australia, Dr Hamilton’s roots stretch to an encounter with arguably one of the most famous Scots of all. Her ancestor John Hamilton, of Sundrum, was a merchant and “agricultural improver” when he acquired the estate near Alloway from Lord Cathcart in the mid-1750s. When William Burnes, father of Robert Burns, fell into a financial dispute with his landlord David M’Lure, it was Hamilton in his appointment as “oversman” who would sort out the case. He decided that, of the £775 that M’Lure claimed he was owed, £543 was accounted for in credits for improvements to his property, rent and other issues.Reducing the claim for rent meant the Burns family could avoid destitution.
Perhaps Dr Hamilton inherited her sense of adventure from her grandfather, who commanded a West Indiaman ship which ploughed a route between the Old and New World – and who would be celebrated for the capture of a prized French vessel. Her own father, who left farming in Ayrshire for Australia, and mother returned to Scotland not long after her birth in 1858.
The young Lillias was schooled close to her ancestor’s seat, Sundrum Castle. After a brief spell teaching and travelling, she decided to join the small group of pioneering women who, despite overwhelming prejudice, trained as medics.
She enrolled first at the London School of Medicine for Women, before completing her studies in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, becoming among the first European women to practice as a physician and surgeon.
Disdain for female medics, however, meant many like her were forced to travel abroad to practice. While some travelled to Morocco and Algeria, she opted to set up her clinic in Calcutta. She was recovering from cholera and counting her financial losses when the option to travel to Kabul to work for The Iron Amir arose. Within months and after successfully treating one of his wives, the Amir made her his personal physician, a role which she combined with treating the ordinary people of Kabul. They were said to form queues of up to 750 people a day, waiting to be seen at first in a tent hastily erected in Kabul’s historic Bagh-i Babur park, and then in a surgery at her home. She strived to find a cure for cholera, then concentrated on pioneering vaccination work to help curb smallpox, which years later would be adopted by the World Health Organisation and the Afghan government.
However, her descriptions of the Amir and fictional account of life in his court in her novel, A Vizier’s Daughter, left her open to attack. She fled in 1896 and, two years later, was in Glasgow, lecturing on harem life and regaling her audience with tales of death-defying adventures.
Plagued by ill health linked to her travels, she died in France in 1925. Despite her Ayrshire links, there does not appear to be any mention of Dr Hamilton’s death in Scottish newspapers of the time. Instead, her obituary in The Times paid tribute to her “deep and generous understanding of human nature”, zest for life and persuasive charm. Dr Yvonne McFadden of Women’s History Scotland, which promotes research and study into women’s and gender history, said: “There are so many great Scottish women we are just beginning to find out about. “It’s important we uncover the lives of these women and give them the recognition that they deserve. More women’s history integrated into the Scottish school curriculum would go some way to addressing the balance.”
Distributed by:he Network for Afghan Women List
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