Former students of St George’s: Assaad Y. Kayat (1843-1846)

To welcome new and old students to St George’s, our Archive team will be exploring the stories of some of our alumni. Today’s post comes from Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.

Image of Assaad Y. Kayat
Image of Assaad Y. Kayat. Source: ‘A Voice from Lebanon with the Life and Travels of Assaad Y. Kayat’ (1847).

Going through student records recently in the archives, I came across the name Assaad y Kayat in the list of students enrolled at St George’s in 1843. There was not much information in this list: his student number was 4093, he had attended the medical school for three seasons and he ‘appears not to have paid his fees’. His name stood out from the list of predominantly British names (the students at St George’s were until relatively recently primarily white, middle or upper class and male – you can read about our first female students in 1915 here), but the brief description was also intriguing. Who was Assaad, where did he come from and what happened to him?

As luck would have it, it turns out that Assaad, helpfully for us, published a book with his life story. He spelled his name As’ad Yakub Khayyat or Assaad Y. Kayat, and the book he wrote was called ‘A Voice from Lebanon, with the Life and Travels of Assaad Y. Kayat’. It was originally published by Madden & Co on Leadenhall Street, London, in 1847, and the front page includes a (rather dashing) portrait of him (see above).

The book appears to have been written specifically for a British audience. He had spent time in England on three occasions: it was on his third trip that he became a student at St George’s. At the age of 32 when he began his studies, he would have been considerably older than most of his fellow students – Henry Gray, for instance, was only 16 when he began his studies the previous year. Assaad was also married and had two small children, and had to earn money to cover his studies, so he presumably did not have much time for student activities. In his book, however, he only has words of praise for his time as a student:

‘I … entered as a medical student at St George’s Hospital … I shall be for ever indebted to them for the instruction I have received from their high skill. It is indeed a glorious hospital, an exalted medical school; it is an honour to be taught at it’

Signature of Assaad Y. Kayat in the St George’s Hospital Medical School Register 1836-1902.
Signature of Assaad Y. Kayat in the St George’s Hospital Medical School Register 1836-1902. Archives and Special Collections of St George’s, University of London

Life and travels of Assaad Y. Kayat

Born in 1811 in Beirut, Assaad describes in vivid detail his childhood and upbringing, through epidemics, wars and revolutions. He learns to read and write at the age of four, first in Arabic, his mother tongue, as his father wants to give him a good education (‘from the fear of my growing to manhood in a state of wretchedness and oppression’). Showing great promise and inclination for learning languages (he subsequently learns both ancient and modern Greek, Italian, English and Persian) as well as an astute business sense, Assaad soon progresses from selling rag papers to interpreting for sailors and merchants and is eventually employed as an interpreter by the British consul and representative of the East India Company in Syria. He travels widely around Middle East and Europe. Keeping in mind his audience, there is a lot of name-dropping of British dignitaries, officials and other people he meets on the way – his skills at networking are clearly second to none.

Although his focus is on Christian missionary activities, his account comes across as strikingly liberal for its time: he talks of ‘native agency’ and the importance of having native teachers and preachers, as well as of learning local languages and customs. He is a keen advocate of education, and in particular women’s education and equality.

Medical education

Throughout the account, he emphasises his journey to become a doctor ‘in order to benefit my fellow creatures’. On his second visit to England in the later 1830s, he attends some medical lectures at Cambridge, as well as at St George’s, where his first connection appears to have been the hospital chaplain, Rev William Niven. He regards medical education as an essential:

‘It requires no miracle to heal, but only to attend a medical course for a diploma or degree. A dose or two of sulphate of quinine often cures your patient of ague; vaccination prevents his taking the small-pox; the use of certain precautions prevents your catching the plague.’

In 1843 he returns to England, accompanied by his wife and toddler, as well as a group of young men with the view of obtaining an education for them, and to study medicine at St George’s. It is not all plain sailing, however, His wife Martha struggles to settle in; she has a toddler and a small baby to care for, she is sick herself, cannot get used to the miserable weather and the famous London fogs (or smogs caused by pollution in the dirty and overcrowded city), she doesn’t speak English and is largely confined to their small rented rooms, instead of their lovely house and garden and the company of her family and friends in Beirut (so despite his advocacy for women’s education, his own wife is stuck with a very traditional role at home). They are struggling with money; the committee (‘Committee of the Syrian Society’) Assaad had set up to enable the education for his ‘Syrian youths’ is slow to help, and Assaad attempts to raise money by giving public lectures on Syria and Christianity and by setting up a small importing and exporting business.

He is also keenly aware of his status as an immigrant in Britain and encounters prejudices and racism. He cites a journalist, who ‘came to my lectures twice, and all she could observe was my handsome appearance – her ears tickled by my foreign accent’ and talks at length about the difficulties in trying to expel these prejudices:

‘Some take me for a prince, or at least a chief; others, for a Chinese ambassador, a merchant, or an interpreter. Some think I am a Jew; others, a Turk, a missionary, a philosopher, or a lecturer; Christians of every denomination appointing to me a station or an office according to their own preconceived notions.’

Entry for Assaad Y Kayat (student number 4093). St George’s student records Vol 5. SGHMS/4/1/7.
Entry for Assaad Y Kayat (student number 4093). St George’s student records Vol 5. SGHMS/4/1/7. Archives and Special Collections of St George’s, University of London.

The student records show that Assaad studied for three seasons. One of the records notes that he ‘appears not to have paid his fees’, but according to his own account he finishes his studies in 1846, obtains his diploma and is admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, before returning to Beirut. It is unclear which account is true; maybe some more research in the archives will shed more light on the matter.

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