St John People

‘Salt of the earth’: Sir Harry Chapman Sinderson (Pasha)

Museum of the Order of St John Dr Roberto Rossi, Collections Volunteer
Image © Roberto Rossi
Image © Roberto Rossi

On the south side of the Crypt lies the plaque of Sir Harry Chapman Sinderson. He was an indefatigable figure whose importance lies in the development of medicine and hospitals in the period of British Mandate in Iraq.

Born in Lincolnshire in 1891, Sinderson read Medicine at Edinburgh University. He graduated in 1914 and served as a medical officer during the First World War aboard Hospital Ships. In 1918, Sinderson travelled to what was then Mesopotamia, soon to become Iraq. Aboard the same ship was another officer named Sandison. This caused a VAD, Miss Elsie MunGavin, to distinguish the two by calling Sinderson, more used to being on board ships, ‘Sinbad’. Two years later, Sinderson and MunGavin were married.

Sinderson went to Baghdad to become registrar at a newly built hospital in the city. In 1922, Iraq’s new King, Faisal I, fell ill. His personal physician, Colonel Amin Ma’louf diagnosed indigestion, but Sinderson was asked for a second opinion. He diagnosed acute appendicitis. After Faisal’s condition deteriorated, the king indeed needed an appendectomy. On the day of the operation, the famous female traveller, Getrude Bell, the Oriental secretary to the British High Commissioner, called both Sinderson and Captain Braham, the surgeon, ‘salt of the earth’. Ma’louf resigned, and Sinderson replaced him as Royal Physician. Sinderson, fluent in Arabic, also wrote speeches for King Faisal and assisted him with public speaking in English.

In 1927, the Baghdad Medical College was founded.  Sinderson was its first Dean and Professor of Medicine. The school was soon recognised by the Royal Colleges of Physicians of London and Surgeons of England, enabling Iraqi students to study in Britain. In the 1930s’ Sinderson also helped to establish the Red Crescent and Save the Children in Iraq.

When Faisal I died in 1933, Sinderson served his son, King Ghazi, who was less convivial to Sinderson than his father had been.  Sinderson was replaced as Dean of the Medical School in 1934, but still served the Royal Family. In 1939, Ghazi was killed in a car crash. In this period, some Iraqis were not unsympathetic to Germany. With tensions raised, the British were blamed for Ghazi’s death and the British Governor in Mosul was murdered by a mob the next day. Ghazi’s young son, the Prince Regent Faisal II, was ousted in a coup in 1941, but Sinderson helped him to escape. A month later, the coup collapsed, and Faisal II was reinstated. Sinderson was also reappointed as Dean of the medical college.

Picture2During World War II, Sinderson and Elsie set up Noah’s Ark, a welfare centre in Baghdad for allied servicemen, staffed by local women. A million patients were treated over three years. Sinderson continued as personal physician to the Royal Family. Nonetheless, in 1946, after twenty-three years, Sinderson resigned his post to return to England. His leaving party was attended by the Iraqi Prime Minister, cabinet members, and the Faculty of the Royal College of Medicine. Under Sinderson, 500 Iraqi doctors had graduated from the college.  The same year Sinderson was knighted. He returned to Iraq to see Faisal II become officially crowned king.

Sinderson had come to the attention of the Venerable Order in 1925. He taught first aid at the School for Health Officers in Baghdad, and promoted the St John Ambulance Association in Iraq. He was made Serving Brother in 1936.

On his return to England, Sinderson settled in Sussex. In 1955, he was appointed the county’s director in the St John Ambulance Brigade, reorganizing the division along new Association lines with confidence and enthusiasm.

Two events affected Sinderson in later years. The first was the assassination of the Iraqi royal family, including Faisal II, in the July 14 Revolution of 1958. The second was the death of Elsie in 1967. Sinderson decided to compose his memoirs Ten Thousand on One Nights: Memories of Iraq’s Sherifian Dynasty, published in 1973. It was dedicated to Elsie. He wished for an Arabic translation, which followed soon after.

Sir Harry Chapman Sinderson died in 1974. Sinderson was buried locally, but he had a memorial service at the Priory Church in Clerkenwell, where he had risen in the intervening years to the rank of Knight of Justice.

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