How superpower rivalry and fears of a pandemic brought the first doctor to the UAE in 1939

Story behind the UAE's first health clinic 80 years ago has echoes of our world today

Members of the American Mission at Basra for their annual meeting in 1922. Sarah Hosmon is seated in the second row, second from the left, with Dr Louis Dame standing, second from the right. Both practised medicine in what is now the UAE.
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A smartly dressed young man from India strode confidently along noisy spice-scented streets bustling even early in the morning with traders and dhow’s nakhodas or captains.

He headed for a freshly painted building on the edge of Dubai Creek, where three other men were already waiting at the entrance to greet their new boss.

Meet Dr Jemadur Nur Ahmed and his staff. It was early June in 1939, and Dubai’s first resident doctor and health clinic was open for business.

And not just the first in Dubai but in all of what is now the UAE, then part of a British protectorate called the Trucial States.

In those days, disease and premature death were constant companions in the seven emirates, a place where the only available healthcare came from folk remedies and, all too often, charlatans and fraudsters.

Dr Desmond McCaully, who started Al Maktoum Hospital in 1951, seen here seated, second left, in Dubai in 1959.  The men are wearing what was known as "Gulf rig", a dress code that maintained formality with a white shirt and cummerbund, but dispensed with a dinner jacket and bow tie due to the heat. 

“The state of these poor people is truly distressing,” a British official wrote to London after a visit only three years earlier.

But what brought Dr Nur Ahmed to Dubai, and with him the beginning of modern healthcare in the UAE?

The answer seems oddly familiar today, more the 80 years later.

Fear that a deadly pandemic could sweep the world. Government planners dodging long-term solutions for short-term penny-pinching. Politicians whose first concern was avoiding blame and scandal when things went wrong.

And two economic superpowers, one rising, the other in decline, locked in a struggle for the world’s natural resources.

It is a story that began 30 years before Dr Nur Ahmed arrived in Dubai and thousands of miles away, in Chicago, for the 1910 graduation ceremony of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at the University of Illinois.

Sarah Longworth Hosmon was one of a handful of women among the newly minted medics.

She limped a little as she walked to collect her certificate, the result of a leg lost following a bad fall when she was only 12.

Dr Hosmon was not the sort of person to let disability get in the way. She was driven by a passion to heal the sick, and by her Presbyterian faith, a particularly devout and austere branch of the Christian church with a strong emphasis on missionary work.

Within a year of graduating, Dr Hosman, not yet 30, was heading across the world to Bahrain. Born in 1883 in Kentucky, she would spend almost the rest of her life working on the Arabian Peninsula, ending in Sharjah.

Handout photo of Al Maktoum Hospital, Dubai's first hospital that opened in the 1950's. (Photo courtesy-Government of Dubai)

In the end, their efforts to lure the local population towards Christianity were a total failure. But the impact on healthcare would be profound.

With the rest of group of like-minded men and women, she would form the American Mission, with the belief that even in the heart of the Muslim world they might save both lives and souls.

Hosmon was sent to Muscat to open a clinic that focused on maternity care but would reappear in Sharjah more than 30 years later.

The rest of the mission operated from Bahrain, frequently visiting other countries in the Gulf to offer their services.

As word of mouth spread, they became much in demand.

One of them was Dr Louis Dame, with a report from the British resident in 1929 noting “At the request of several patients, Dr Dame paid a visit to Ajman, Hamiyah (in Sharjah) and Dibai (sic) in the month of January and made successful operations.”

Increasingly, though, the British became suspicious of the Americans, intruders in a region where they enjoyed almost total control.

The reason was oil, and the negotiations in the 1930s with Gulf rulers for the rights to explore.

Britain’s great rival for oil in the region was the United States, and local officials began to suspect that the American doctors might be offering more than medical advice.

Alarm bells rang when two American doctors suddenly turned up in Doha in May 1935, just as negotiations with Qatar reached a critical phase.

The British believed at least one of them was secretly lobbying for the California Standard Oil Company, and indeed Dr Dame shortly gave up his missionary work to join Standard Oil.

Local British officials now increasingly lobbied for London to fund healthcare in the Gulf for reasons that were as much political as humanitarian.

It was “undesirable on general grounds to have American missionary doctors, or indeed doctors of any foreign nationality on the Trucial Coast and the only way this can be avoided is by having a doctor of our own there to whom the sheikhs and their subjects will turn,” read one report from 1937.

There were other concerns, particularly about Dubai and Sharjah, now stopovers on the new Imperial Airways route to British India, and its potential to carry disease as well as passengers.

“The weak link in the sanitary chain remains the Trucial coast where we have no sanitary arrangements whatsoever,” the British Political Agent Trenchard Fowle wrote in 1937.

At Dubai, United Arab Emirates, circa 1937.  (Photo by Sir R. Hay/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

“In the event of prominence being given to this fact by, for instance, influential passengers by Imperial Airways…or by the Press, or worse still by the outbreak of a serious epidemic in a neighbouring country…..the origin of which could be traced to the Trucial Coast, we should have to face strong criticism, against which, in the absence medical arrangements in that area, it would be impossible to defend ourselves.”

The stumbling block was money. London felt costs should be met by the government of British India, which had long administered the Gulf.

New Delhi thought it was paying enough for a region which offered no obvious return.

In the end, London blinked first, and perhaps spooked at the prospect of Britain being blamed for a global pandemic barely 20 years after Spanish flu, came up by May 1938 with the princely sum of £500 to fund a doctor in Dubai.

A building for the new clinic, rent free, was offered by the Ruler, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, who had long been concerned about the lack of proper medical care for his people.

As far back as the summer of 1934, he warned about a man called Abdul Aziz bin Hamir who claimed to be a doctor and “began to treat my subjects without my permission”.

“Some people are lying in bed because of his treatment,” he told the British, adding “it is in the interests of his life he should leave the place before he kills anyone here.”

It was agreed the Indian Medical Service, military doctors in British India, would handle the recruitment.

Their choice was Jemadur Nur Ahmed, a Muslim who held the rank of sub-assistant surgeon, the equivalent of a lieutenant.

Dr Nur Ahmed was provided with three male staff, including a pharmacist or “compounder”, a “dresser” for basic nursing, and a “sweeper” for cleaning and other housekeeping duties.

Officially the new facility was a dispensary, or clinic, with no beds for long-term care.

Sarah Hosmon, of the Arabian Mission and later founder of the Sarah Hosmon Hospital in Sharjah in an early undated photograph.

An announcement was made in Arabic on the Gulf radio service: “The doctor in charge has been selected by the Indian medical department, and medicines and equipment necessary for the treatment of the common illnesses of the Trucial Coast have been provided.”

Within months, the clinic was attracting up to 100 patients a day, and “has exceeded all expectations and the number is expected to increase considerably in the Autumn when the pearl fishers return.”

There were more glowing reports to London about Dr Nur Ahmed who “is young and keen and appears to be a very suitable sub assistant surgeon for this post. He has started well and has gained the confidence of the inhabitants.”

We know little more about the UAE’s first resident doctor except that he was married with two school-age children, and complained that his salary was too low to bring them to Dubai.

He may have stayed only a few years. When cholera broke out in Dubai in 1947, the official report refers to the Medical Officer as Dr Mahmud Yassin of Amritsar, along with an unidentified “local doctor.”

By then, though, healthcare was becoming more widely available. The redoubtable one-legged Dr Hosmon, now 66, had been lobbying the British since 1944 for a move to Kalba, then a separate emirate.

Permission was finally granted in 1951 when Kalba was reincorporated as an enclave of Sharjah and the opening of the clinic that would become known as the Dr Sarah Hosmon Hospital.

She worked in Sharjah until only a few years before her death in 1963 at the age of 80, the last survivor from the American Mission that had once troubled the British.

In Dubai, Dr Nur Ahmed’s clinic was moved to a larger, purpose-built facility on land provided by Sheikh Saeed.

The year 1949 saw the arrival of Dr Desmond McCaully, also of the Indian Medical Service, but born in Ireland.

Dr McCaully, a larger-than-life character in more ways than just his six-foot-three height, was placed in charge of the first Al Maktoum Hospital which opened in Al Wasl in 1951.

He continued to practise in Dubai until 1964. By then the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain had been operating for four years, run by Drs Pat and Marian Kennedy, and assisted by nurse Gertrude Dyck.

From the Sarah Hosmon Hospital came a succession of nurses and midwives for new clinics across the Northern Emirates. Women like Wilhelmina van de Weg and Joan Elliott. Dr Zulekha Daud, a doctor who arrived from India in 1964 and is still known simply as "Mama Zulekha" is another part of the story; one that began so many years ago but continues to this day.