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Biographical entry Pennell, Theodore Leighton (1867 - 1912)

MRCS Nov 13th 1890; FRCS Oct 13th 1892; LRCP Nov 13th 1890; LSA 1890; MB Lond (Scholarship and Gold Medal) 1890; MD (Gold Medal) 1892.

23 March 1912
General surgeon


The son of a gifted medical practitioner in Brazil who died whilst his son was an infant; he was brought up by a devoted mother, who was herself a proficient linguist. She had set before him the course of a medical missionary, directing him in his medical career and in the reading of missionary biographies and travels.

From Eastbourne College Pennell obtained in 1885 the Medical Entrance Exhibition at University College and Hospital in London. There, in 1889, he gained the Atchison Scholarship, the Bruce and the Liston Medals, in 1890 the Atkinson Morley Scholarship, and he graduated brilliantly in medicine at the University. Meanwhile he acted as Secretary of the University College Christian Association, which he represented on the Medical Prayer Union, and he was a leader in the University College Working Lads' Institute in Tottenham Court Road. A striking appearance, over six feet in height, marked him out for a commanding position. Dr Frederick Roberts referred to him as the most distinguished student of his year.

In 1892 he went out to India under the Church Missionary Society to the Medical Mission at Dera Ismail Khan. In 1893 he was transferred to the North-West Frontier at Bannu to open out a new medical mission. He was accompanied by his devoted mother, who remained with him on the Afghan border until her death in 1908.

Pennell published Among Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier, to which Lord Roberts wrote a preface. From very small beginnings he became known as the best friend of the tribesmen throughout a wide circle. He developed a hospital with ninety beds; in 1910 the in-patients numbered 1309, the out-patients 67,294. He did a number of operations, 300 cataract operations in one year. The wounded from both sides after a tribal conflict found themselves occupants of the same ward. Pennell went on visits among the tribes and was welcomed where few others would have dared to venture. The Government of India recognized his worth by awarding him in 1903 the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal of the 2nd class, and in 1910 that of the 1st class. He encouraged athletics to stiffen the fibre of Indian boys, and took the football team of the Bannu High School for a tour in North India to play matches with other mission schools; he was also a keen entomologist and botanist.

In the summer of 1908 he took a short leave, which gave occasion for an address from both Hindoos and Mohammedans at Bannu, in which they referred to his selfless devotion as a medical man, his attendance at any hour to a call whether from rich or poor, the excellent arrangements for in-patients and outĀ¬patients treated alike with sympathy and kindness. In the costume of an Afghan he had joined in their social gatherings as one of themselves, and his efforts to bridge the gulf between Europeans and Indians were highly admired. He had made a home in their hearts, and whilst praying for a happy voyage, they looked forward to welcoming him back. His leave in England was broken by the sudden death in India of his mother; he also underwent an operation for removal of a loose cartilage from the knee. On his return to India he married a Parsee lady, Miss Alice M Sorabji, BS Bombay, MB, BS Lond., who especially shared in the Zenana part of his work. She returned to England with him two years later, after he had been much exhausted by an attack of typhoid fever.

At Bannu on March 20th, 1912, when operating upon a colleague, Dr W H Barnett, an old St Bartholomew's student, for septicaemia, Pennell also contracted septicaemia, and died on March 23rd, shortly after Barnett, who had died on the 20th. A memorial service was held at St Pancras Church, which was attended by the Provost, Secretary, Dean of the Medical School, and friends from University College and Hospital.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Pennell of Afghan. Brit Med Jour, 1912, i, 761, 814. Lancet, 1912, i, 961].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England