THE HEALING MAHOMEDS

WE REMEMBER DEAN SAKE MAHOMED, ONE OF BRIGHTON’S MOST ILLUSTRIOUS MIGRANT SONS, HIS HEALING HANDS, AND HIS LAVISH BATHS.


It is undoubtedly a matter of some satisfaction that one of the very first Non-Resident Indians in history—perhaps the very first—scripted a life for himself that satisfied every single NRI aspiration. And in living what proved to be an uncommonly rich, eccentric and, indeed, uncommon life Dean Sake Mahomed—or Sheikh Deen Mohammed—set a benchmark for overseas experiences, such as love marriage, and achievements, such as massaging the King of England, that generations of Indian migrants have aspired to ever since. Or at least some of them have.

Dean Sake Mahomed was born around 1759 in Patna. “I was too young when my father died, to learn any great account of his family,” Mahomed later wrote, “all I have been able to know respecting him, is, that he was descended from the same race as the Nabobs of Moorshadabad [Murshidabad]. He was appointed Subadar in a battalion of Seapoys commanded by Captain Adams, a company of which under his command was quartered at a small district not many miles from Patna, called Tarchpoor [Tajpur], an inconsiderable fort, built on the side of a little river that takes its rise a few miles up the country. Here he was stationed in order to keep this fort.”

It is hard to say how much of this is true. And even if true, how of much this is true for Mahomed himself. All his life Mahomed possessed the migrant entrepreneur’s flair for embellishment. And he most definitely did not spare his autobiography from this tendency.

Last year this writer went to Brighton, a popular British seaside town, as part of a group of Indian travel journalists shown around various tourist attractions. Part of this tour included a conversation with a group of local historians over cups of tea and scones and clotted cream at a tea room inside the splendid and bizarre Brighton Pavilion. One of these historians, an expert on the history of Brighton’s migrant population, appeared to be something of a Mahomed groupie. This is because Dean Sake Mahomed is one of Brighton’s most illustrious migrant sons.

But even this lifelong admirer was careful to point out Mahomed’s penchant for flourish. The Sheikh, he said, was an expert at building his personal brand. Which was just as well. Because Dean Sake Mahomed’s remarkable exploits, especially in the area of healing and healthcare, are owed at least in part to his remarkable capacity for self-promotion and storytelling.

***

What we do know for certain is that around the time he was 11 years old Dean Sake Mahomed became a camp follower to an Anglo-Irish officer in the Bengal Army—Ensign Godfrey Evan Baker. The officer and the young fatherless Indian boy hit it off immediately. Maohomed later wrote in his memoirs:

“In gratitude to the revered memory of the best of characters, I am obliged to acknowledge that I never found myself so happy as with Mr. Baker: insensible of the authority of a superior, I experience the indulgence of a friend; and the want of a tender parent was entirely forgotten in the humanity and affection of a benevolent stranger.”

Ten years later, by around 1780, Mahomed had achieved the rank of subedar in the Bengal Army. In 1782 when his patron decided to resign and sail back to Ireland, Mahomed did not hesitate: “having a desire of seeing that part of the world, and convinced that I should suffer much uneasiness of mind, in the absence of my best friend, I resigned my commission of Subidar, in order to accompany him.” Baker and Mahomed left Calcutta on a Danish ship in January 1784 and arrived at Dartmouth in England the following September. Shortly afterwards the two men arrived in Cork, Ireland. Mahomed would spend the next decade there studying English, writing his memoirs, mingling in Irish high society and living off his patron’s considerable wealth, much of which was acquired through Baker’s marriage.

Amidst all this he also found the time to elope with an Irish woman named Jane Daly and then, in 1794, at the relatively young age of around 35, to write the first of at least three books: “The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honourable The East India Company Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend”.

(This was a time before authors worried about the tweetability of their book titles. Later Mahomed would write a book with a title that was an entire paragraph long.)

Then, for reasons that have never really been understood, Mahomed, Daly and their children migrated from Cork to London around 1802. By this time Mahomed was around 50 years old, and had perhaps spent half his life not doing very much at all in Ireland.

He would more than make amends for that over the remaining four decades of his life.

***

Frederick Henry Horatio Akbar Mahomed, the Sheikh’s grandson, was born on April 11th, 1849 in Brighton.

Akbar later described his younger self like this: “As a child, rampagious, irritable and passionate; always restless and excitable, and giving them no peace in his home; in early boyhood not remarkable for any brilliancy, maintaining a good average place at school with a tendency towards mathematics, weak in languages, fond of mechanical toys, and apt in constructing them.”

Thankfully for medical science Akbar, like so many inventors and discoverers who were middling school students, would conserve all his brilliance for later in life when he became an innovative, pioneering physician with a great capacity for work.

Akbar’s most important work came in two phases at either end of his medical career. The first phase took place in the early 1870s when he was still just a student of medicine at Guy’s Hospital in London. Mahomed first took upon himself the task of perfecting the sphygmograph, a hitherto unwieldy and cumbersome device used for measuring and plotting blood pressure.

The medical student from Brighton not only designed a new type of sphygmometer with an adjustable spring but he also commissioned a South London watchmaker to manufacture the device for him. Akbar published his design, his readings and the various uses for his device in 1872. Widespread recognition and accolades followed, even though very few other people could use the device with Akbar’s skill.

Despite a punishing work schedule and the pursuit of degrees in Medicine first from Brussels and then from Cambridge, Akbar followed up his technical breakthrough by using it to make a medical breakthrough around 1879.

At the time it was generally believed that kidney failure in patients led to high blood pressure. But Akbar used his highly sensitive blood pressure plotting machine to prove that the causality was, in fact, in reverse. High blood pressure caused kidney failure and not vice versa.

Having attained some sense of the devastating effects of high blood pressure and hypertension, Akbar wrote this in an 1879 paper:

‘These persons appear to pass on through life pretty much as others do and generally do not suffer from their high blood pressures, except in their petty ailments upon which it imprints

itself… As age advances the enemy gains strength… perhaps the mode of life assists him – good living and alcoholic beverages… or head work, mental anxiety, hurried meals, constant excitement… tend to intensify the existing condition, or if not previously present perhaps to produce it… the individual has now passed forty years, perhaps fifty years of age, his lungs begin to degenerate, he has a cough in the winter time, but by his pulse you will know him… Alternatively headache, vertigo, epistaxis, a passing paralysis, a more severe apopleptic seizure, and then the final blow.’

It almost reads like a paragraph from a modern day pamphlet on the dangers of high blood pressure and a stressful lifestyle.

In a 1997 paper in the Journal of Human Hypertension titled Frederick Henry Horatio Akbar Mahomed:‘A brave and ambitious explorer’ author O. Lewis says that Akbar’s results anticipated modern findings on hypertension and blood pressure by around a 100 years.

***

Once in London, Dean Sake Mahomed began working for a Scottish aristocrat named Basil Cochrane. It was a serendipitous decision on Mahomed’s part. Cochrane employed the exotic foreigner in his ‘vapour bath’. Located in the upmarket London neighbourhood of Portman Square, this supposedly modern take on the steam bath, Cochrane insisted, was inspired by his travels to India. It proved to be a smash hit with Londoners. The business was given a further fillip when Mahomed introduced the Indian techniques of chumpi and malish at Cochrane’s baths.

Mahomed’s most well known biographer Michael H. Fisher writes in an essay that accompanies a 1997 edition of Mahomed’s Travels, that champi, called shampooing in London, quickly became the rage.  Other competing baths began to offer the same Indian massage service.

Unfortunately Dean Sake Mahomed got no credit for this trend. Perhaps dejected by this, Mahomed left Cochrane and embarked on his first, proper entrepreneurial venture. Called the Hindostanee Coffee House and established in 1809, it is perhaps the first curry house to ever open in London. Perhaps in England. Fisher described the restaurant’s decor, an aesthetic that continues to be popular with London curry houses two centuries later:

“He prepared a range of meat and vegetable dishes with Indian spices and served with seasoned rice. He constructed bamboo-cane sofas and chairs on which his patrons would recline. He adorned the walls with a range of paintings including Indian landscapes, Indians engaged in various social activities, and sporting scenes set in India.”

Ugh.

The venture launched to critical acclaim. But Mahomed appears to have spent too much money on it. He went bankrupt in 1812. Driven to desperation, he ran an advertisement in a local newspaper offering to become a butler. That effort too was fruitless.

Eventually the family moved to Brighton, hoping for a fresh start perhaps, and fell back on a proven business model: the vapour baths. Through a shrewd mix of clever cultural marketing and exuberant advertising, Mahomed slowly began to build a wildly successful baths business. The main secret of his success, at least initially, was his ability to ‘India-fy’ his baths. Advertisements in the Brighton press announced that Mahomed used “herbs and essential oils,…brought expressly from India, and…known only to myself.”

Wink. Nudge. Kaching.

In 1821 the 62-year old Dean Sake Mahomed opened the spectacular Mahomed’s Bath a short distance from Brighton pavilion and a stone’s throw from the seaside. Painted prominently on the three-storey building were the words ‘ORIGINAL MEDICATED SHAMPOOING’ and ‘ HOT COLD DOUCH & SHOWER’. There were separate sections for men and women, and large wall murals of Indian and Greek characters that seemed to usher in customers.

Mahomed also felt that he needed the personal credentials to match the scale of his grand bath complex. So, Fisher writes, he conveniently rewrote his lifestory, increasing his age by ten years so as to accommodate ‘education and training’ as surgeon in the East India Company’s army.

Fisher, yet another unabashed fan of Mahomed’s, assures us that this was hardly dubious at the time. “In the entrepreneurial environment of the early nineteenth century, a range of self-proclaimed experts made fortunes selling medicine and medical treatments to the public. Dean Mahomet remained well within the bounds of medical and advertising ethics of the day.”

But what ultimately swung business in Mahomed’s direction and made him a rich man was the patronage he enjoyed from both King George IV and King William IV. Both kings appointed him ‘Shampooing Surgeon’, a title Mahomed used with great relish. Buoyed by generous royal business and keen interest in Brighton’s social elite to bask in the royal glow, Mahomed’s business boomed for around a decade. His techniques of treatment, advertising, customer service and promotion all helped to set a high bar for competitors in Brighton. Brighton became famous as a place of healing and rejuvenation. Eventually modern bathhouses began to usurp Mahomed’s mojo. An old bugaboo that had driven the Hindostanee Coffee House to ruin reared up its head—costs.

Mahomed’s baths were lavish. But when business dipped, the high fixed costs began to eat away at his profits. Mahomed’s stars declined rapidly. By the 1840s he had scaled back his operations in Brighton substantially. His sons ran small houses in London and Brighton. But none came close to the glory of his great three storey wonderland.

Fisher describes the globetrotting Indian’s final days with sombre tones: “By the time Jane and Dean Mahomet died (December 26, 1850 and February 24, 1851 respectively), they had largely fallen from public attention. Newspaper obituaries uniformly took the tone that Dean Mahomet, once so important to the town’s development, had largely been forgotten. They presented him as too innocent to be a successful entrepreneur. Thus, as prominent as he had made himself through entrepreneurial and medical innovation, Dean Mahomet could not sustain his honored place in Brighton.”

***

Akbar Mahomed was different from his grandfather in three ways: he was a real physician, his successes were long lasting and, unfortunately, he lived nowhere close to Dean Sake Mahomed’s 92 years. On 30 October 1884 Akbar fell ill with typhoid, having possibly contracted it from a patient. Less than a month later he died at the age of 35.

But shortly before he passed away Akbar began work on a project that was, like his work on hypertension, years ahead of his time. Akbar suggested that the British Medical Association ask doctors to fill in detailed questionnaires about their patients, their diseases, symptoms, family history and response to drugs. This precursor to modern clinical trials and epidemiology, Mahomed hoped, would help create a vast, scientific register of data that doctors could use to treat patients. Called the Clinical Investigation Record, Mahomed ran the project with great enthusiasm just before he passed away. In addition to all this workload, Mahomed even found the time to suggest one more idea: a government department that would certify the quality and authenticity of drugs. Mahomed hoped that this would help to protect consumers from both fake drugs and quacks.

It was not to be. Thirty years after one healer Mahomed, the other one passed away as well.

Byline: Sidin Vadukut


Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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