From the archives: International students at St George’s

In this blogpost, written by Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi, we will be looking at the international history of St George’s students.

St George’s Medical School was formally established in 1834, but the hospital, which was opened in 1733, took pupils long before that. There were also several anatomical schools closely associated with the St George’s, including John Hunter’s Great Windmill Street school (established by John’s brother William Hunter in 1745), and Samuel Lane’s School of Anatomy and Medicine adjoining St George’s Hospital; John Hunter was a surgeon at St George’s, and Lane had also studied at St George’s.

There were fees to pay, and students could study for various lengths of time. The early student records show that some students only enrolled for a three-month period, others for six or 12 months. Initially pupils were assigned to a particular surgeon or physician. To become a perpetual pupil, there was an additional fee (which in 1870 was 100 guineas), and allowed the student admission to the practice of the physicians and surgeons of the hospital and all the lectures, allowing them to compete for any prizes and to become clinical clerks and dressers. The high fees then (as now) meant that education was not available for everyone, and the majority of the students were from the upper middle classes; many had gone to public schools and Cambridge or Oxford before attending St George’s.

Photo of 1805 student register.
Student register 1805, showing students enrolled for various lengths of time under different surgeons. Register of Pupils and House Officers 1756-1837, SGHMS/4/1/16, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London; and Extract from student register, 1945, showing the schools and colleges attended by student prior to their enrolment at St George’s. Register of Pupils 1837-1946, SGHMS/4/1/18, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

International connections

The student records held in the archives reveal a steady trickle of international students, based on their names (which in these early records is often the only information recorded). Names, of course, can only be used as a starting point, but the records also occasionally explicitly refer to visiting students, as in the case of Michal Astrashapovitch and Stephen Koniwetsky, who paid £20 to study under Everard Home and attend the lectures ‘for an uncertain time, to be settled at their leaving England’. There is no more information about them, but they may have been Russian – there are several other Russian names which suggests some regular contact or connection.

Photo of 1808 student register, showing enrolment of Michal Astrashapovitch and Stephen Koniwetsky.
Student register 1808, showing enrolment of Michal Astrashapovitch and Stephen Koniwetsky. SGHMS/4/1/16, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Another early student was Philip Syng Physick, who had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and travelled to England to study under John Hunter in 1785. Known as the ‘father of American surgery’, he is said to have performed the first human blood transfusion, and was particularly interested in using autopsy as a method for observation and discovery – a practice that we can time and again see in our post mortem records.

Swedish names also appear in the registers with some regularity, especially in the 1890s when it appears to have been somewhat of a trend to travel to London to study medicine. These students include Henning Grenander, who later gained fame as a figure skater, winning the world title at the National Skating Palace in London in 1898.

Image of Henning Grenander ice skating.
Henning Grenander. Image: skateguard1.blogspot.com

Henrik Kellgren’s ‘Swedish Institution for the Cure of Diseases by Manual Treatment’in Eton Square, London appears to have further encouraged Swedish students to study in London: Axel Wolter Louis Stackelberg, who was a pupil at Kellgren’s institute, for instance, is enrolled for 6 months as a student of anatomy in 1897, while both Kellgren’s sons Ernst and Jonas also studied at St George’s for a period; Jonas went on to study rheumatism, was a pioneer in the study of physiology of pain, and became a professor of rheumatology in Manchester in 1953.

The adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan

Hajee Baba may have been the first Muslim student at St George’s, and one of the first Iranian medical practitioners to study in Europe in this period. He came to England to study medicine alongside another young Iranian, Muhammad Kazim or Mohammed Cassim, in 1811 with the British ambassador to Iran, Sir Harford Jones. Hajee Baba was the son of an officer in the Shah’s army, and the sending of students to study in Britain was seen as a way of strengthening the diplomatic ties and connections between the countries; his brother trained as a mining engineer in Russia. Kazim was to study arts, but died shortly after their arrival in England.

Hajee Baba stayed in England for eight years. Following his studies, he returned to Iran to work as a physician in the court in Teheran, and in 1835 he is described as ‘a respectable elderly looking man’. He also worked as an interpreter for Persian missions abroad. Eventually he became the chief physician to the shah. He died in 1842 or 1843.

Composite image. From left to right: photo of 1817 student register, Cover of ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan’ (1824-28) by James Justinian Morier; Poster for ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’ (1954).
Student register 1817, Register of Pupils and House Officers 1756-1837, SGHMS/4/1/16, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London; Cover of ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan’ (1824-28) by James Justinian Morier; Poster for ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba’ (1954), Wikipedia, ©20th Century Studios.

He may have been the inspiration for a series of best-selling novels, ‘The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan’ (1824-28) by James Justinian Morier, secretary to Sir Harford Jones; Hajee Baba was reportedly annoyed at Morier’s use of his name for this purpose (and would have been, we can imagine, even more annoyed by the American adventure film of the same name of 1954!).  Nile Green’s book ‘The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s England’ (2016) recounts the story of a group of six students who travelled to Britain in 1815, based on contemporary diaries and letters of the students, in which he also mentions Hajee Baba and his unfortunate companion.

The problem of sources…

Often, the spelling of names varies considerably in different sources (this is of course particularly true when the original is in a different script), which can make tracking people difficult (but we do enjoy a bit of detective work!); there is a Wikipedia entry for Hajee Baba, for instance, but in that his name is spelled Hadji Baba Ashfar, whilst the Encyclopaedia Iranica uses the form Ḥājjī Bābā Afšār; in Persian his name is افشار، حاجی بابا.

Many students are also entered in the registers only by their first initial and surname, making identification even more problematic. A ‘foreign-sounding’ name, moreover, is of course not solid evidence either way – the somewhat exotic-sounding Peregrine Fernandez in 1799, for instance, ‘gentleman of Widcombe, Somerset’, may have had family roots elsewhere, but was born and bred in London. Where the student records are simply lists of names, as the earlier ones are, we have to turn to other sources to find out more about the people behind the names.

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

One student we do know more about is Assaad Kayat, who enrolled as a student at St George’s in 1843, studying alongside Henry Gray (of Gray’s Anatomy). His fascinating story is recounted in more detail in an earlier blogpost, and his autobiography tells us a lot about his childhood in Beirut, as well as his and his wife’s experiences as immigrants in London.

The archives also reveal the story of Boghos Baghdasan Tahmisian, who, according to an appeal launched in 1892 by the Turkish Mission’s Aid Society, was a ‘native of Cilicia’, in present-day Turkey; his name may suggest Armenian origins. He is in the appeal described as a diligent student, who had arrived in London in 1889 and enrolled as a medical student at St George’s. He had, however, found himself lacking adequate funds to be able to finish his studies, which is why the society decided to appeal to the public on his behalf.

Composite image. Left-hand side: ‘An appeal on behalf of Mr B.B. Tahmisian’ (1892). Right-hand side: a letter signed by Tahmisian.
‘An appeal on behalf of Mr B.B. Tahmisian’ (1892) and a letter signed by Tahmisian. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Pictorial propaganda

Following the end of the First World War, the Universities Bureau of the British Empire (now Association of Commonwealth Universities), established in 1913, encouraged British universities to admit students, and the Foreign Office was eager to distribute what they called ‘pictorial propaganda’:

‘The idea is to endeavour to impress the peoples of Russia and of the East with the greatness of the educational system of the British Empire’

Photo of letters to the Medical School, preserved in the minute books of the Medical School Committee XII-XIII.
Letters to the Medical School, preserved in the minute books. Minutes of the Medical School Committee XII-XIII, SGHMS/1/1/1/15. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

‘This medical school is unable to admit any Ceylonese students’

(Medical School minute books, 1920)

The minute books of the medical school from that time contain frequent references to the admission (or not, as it were) of international students; the minutes refer to students by their nationalities: ‘a Pole’, ‘the Siamese doctor’, ‘a native of India’.

At times, certain nationalities were the subject of intense conversations. Following the end of the First World War and demobilisation, many ‘American and colonial’ soldiers found themselves with some time to spare, and willing to use that time to study. A letter from the Royal Society of Medicine in 1918 warns that if plans to offer brief post-graduate courses for such students are not soon put in place, ‘the chances are that the majority of them will go to Paris, where […] post-graduate courses have been arranged for all Allied Officers and are already in full swing!’. The response from St George’s was not enthusiastic due to staff shortages and bureaucratic burden on the school. In the end, however, it was decided that up to 10 American students could be admitted for a three-month course, with a fee of ten guineas.

Appeals from the Egyptian Educational Mission received an even less favourable response: despite admitting two Egyptian students for a clinical course, ‘it was decided that this School cannot bind itself to admit any definite number of Egyptians’, the dean at this time wrote, suggesting that the school is too small to admit ‘foreign students […] although I am doubtful whether they ever really amalgamate or attempt to settle down with their fellow-students’.

At the moment we’re looking forward to delving into our nursing records and learning more about the student nurses at St George’s. Our initial research suggests that in the 1950s-1960s for instance up to 70% of the nursing students were immigrants to the UK; among these are many from the Windrush generation, and students came from all over the world, including the Caribbean, Ireland, India, Nigeria, Sweden and Bermuda.

Photo showing nursing students' nationality in 1970s student records.
Records of nursing students at St George’s in the 1970s. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Want to know more, or see and study the records for yourself? Just get in touch with us at archives@sgul.ac.uk – we’d be very happy to hear from you!


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One thought on “From the archives: International students at St George’s

  1. Unto Ahvensalmi June 16 2021 / 9:35 pm

    Very interesting !

    Like

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