Around the world 50 years ago

Around the world 50 years ago

Like many people I imagine, I have spent spare Covid time sorting old photos and memorabilia. I came across my battered journal of my journey around the world from (almost) 50 years ago. No doubt you would like to hear all about it……

I was in my final years of specialist training in gastroenterology with Dr Brian Creamer at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

Brian had steered me into focusing on the new endoscopy procedures when it was obvious to both of us that I would never make a serious scientist. He came back from the 1970 World Congress in Copenhagen with the amazing news that a Japanese doctor (Itaru Oi) had shown radiographs of using an endoscope to get into the bile duct and pancreas and take radiographs (the procedure that would be become known as “ERCP”). Brian got a grant from the British Cancer Campaign to send me to Japan to check it out, which lead to a 5month trip around the world.

For anyone interested, my journey is reported in four parts: Iran; India, Bangkok and Hong Kong; Japan; USA. Some of the photos are original (the ones out of focus), some of mine taken later, and a few from stock.

Round the world 50 years ago, part 1: Iran

Why Iran? Good question. It turns out that Brian had responded to a request from the British Council to send someone to help a struggling medical school in the ancient southern city of Shiraz. He said “It is on the way to Japan”. I guess…

So, on February 26 1971, I set off naively with my wife and two small children and spent 4 months in a different world.

We flew to Teheran on a VC10, one of the earlier commercial passenger jets, and then a bus halfway to Shiraz, stopping at Isfahan. I thought that would be a good way to “see the country”, but the bus was less than advertised, and the view palled after a few hours. Lots of sandy desert and brown mountains, occasional muddy looking villages, camels and herds of sheep and goats.

After a night at the lovely old Shah Abbas hotel in Isfahan we hired a car with driver and travelled better next day.

Shiraz is a prior capital of Iran, known as the city of roses, one long straight road, low houses, impressive mosques and minarets, surrounded by high brown mountains, sometimes with snow peaks.

 After long negotiations we acquired an apartment in a small “villa” in a dusty compound (gated to protect us from the occasional tribal incursions). It was marginally furnished but we enjoyed the sunshine on the roof patio.

Not surprisingly, language was an issue. Everyone spoke Farsi, but I could converse slowly in French with some of the older professionals, and my colleagues at the hospital. Trying to make calls to England was a nightmare. Food was interesting. Traditional “chellow kebab” (rice, lamb, onion, egg) with naan-like bread straight from the oven, pistachios, orange blosson tea, arak (yuck). Odd pipes for smoking “stuff” and a lovely tile, which we still have.

I did my best to deal with biblical medicine in the public hospital, treating many diseases that I had previously seen only in textbooks, including polio, TB meningitis, typhoid, osteomyelitis, favism, rheumatic fever, even smallpox.

Managing them was made more difficult by the reason that the hospital was struggling. They had already spent their annual budget, I was told on purpose to be able to ask for an increase next year, so we had very few supplies. Treating diabetic coma without insulin was a challenge, and antibiotics were scarce. I did take an endoscope with me, courtesy of Keymed/Olympus, perhaps the first in the middle east, and saw some unusual things, including leeches in the esophagus, causing dysphagia in children. All very instructive for someone just into his 30s.

This was before the revolution, so the Shah was still very much in charge, and he visited Shiraz during my stay. The tradition was that he would open something new at the hospital. I was instructed to develop a coronary care unit (despite the lack of coronary disease), and had everything ready for his inspection, with a patient “volunteer” from the adjoining ward pretending to be monitored. He got nervous just before the Shah arrived, detached the wires and ran way. Guess who became the “patient”.

We borrowed a house, car (and dog) from my boss while he was away and made several explorations outside the city.

The car had an unique feature, a gramophone that played old 75rpm records! We had 2 discs, at least until one was left in the sun on the dash and changed shape irrevocably. The kids insisted on playing the remaining disc, the refrain of which is deeply imprinted in my brain. Shiraz was a short drive from the impressive ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, to which we were introduced (well and repeatedly) by the local expert, an unusual Austrian pathologist. And, talking of unusual, I was taken to consult with a tribe with leprosy by an English dermatologist who spoke only in quotes from Shakespeare. And I managed a touch of cardiology along the way!

We spent the Persian new year (No Ruz) in the home of one of my medical students in special holy city of Isfahan (because the Shah’s mother wanted our apartment). The city has many beautiful tiled buildings, and bazaars full of spices, metalwork and carpets. Don’t ask what was behind the green door in the courtyard.

I took one trip away from Shiraz, to advise at a local hospital and consult with the manager of a big oil terminal in Abadan. He was concerned about his liver, with good reason. While there I was introduced to a primitive 9hole golf course, laid out by a homesick Scottish engineer. It was my first time putting on “browns”.

The British Council compound was an oasis of Englishness throughout our stay, and the staff helpful. They were doing good work locally, especially in education, and they had a swimming pool.

Time passed quickly, with no major problems or illness, and we left in May, grateful for the opportunity to broaden (stretch) our horizons. After a short stay in Teheran, including a tour to the shores of the Caspian sea, I put Paddy, Andrew and Nicola on a plane to London, and headed further east, as you may read in part 2…..

4 Responses

  1. Betty Yearout says:

    Peter , enjoyed reading this . We lived in Tehran from August 1974- Dec 1977 courtesy of the US Army .
    We traveled to the places you described as well as other locations while there. Quite the experience!

  2. Andy Cotton says:

    Thank you for bringing back some lovely memories. I do remember a little, for example, you getting the pool filled with glacier water, & me refusing to swim because it was freezing!
    I really enjoyed putting some pieces of old photos, places and vague fuzzy memories together.

    • petercotto says:

      Yes, it was a little chilly. The pool at the British Council compound was filled with snow melt from the mountains

  3. Elaine says:

    Journal entry fascinating. The small pox case….was that the photo all the way to the right? Interesting that no gloves worn near the patient.

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