Dr Altounyan Recalls the Cholera Epidemic of 1894

Taqui Altounyan, the inspiration for Titty in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, begins her delightful memoir In Aleppo Once with a description of her paternal grandfather.   

He started serious life so early. At the age of seven, when his father died, leaving him in charge of his three brothers, he decided to be a doctor. Sitting by the deathbed he had searched medical books to find out what was killing his father. At the age of ninety-four he was seeing patients till the day before he died, so his active life lasted twice as long as usual. Groping through the mists of legend, I find him most truly in my memories of him and in his own writings.

At the age of ninety, for instance, he unearthed from the back of his mind the cholera epidemic he had dealt with in Syria fifty years before, though ‘unearthed’ is not really an apt word because everything to do with medicine, and all the experiences of his long years, was always there, bright and clean, in the very front of his mind. From the age of eight he had been storing whatever was useful to him. There is nothing doddering about the way, in 1947, he set out this description of the 1894 cholera epidemic: ‘about 2500 cases lasted about three months. First month, mortality 80%. Second month, mortality 60%. Third month, mortality 30%. Total about 30%. After visiting five or six cases, I suspected “cholera asiatica”. All the doctors of Aleppo – Turkish, Egyptian, Jewish, English, American, French, German, Italian, Armenian, about twenty in all, qualified and unqualified’ – I can see the twinkle in his eye as he reels off this list in his slightly Armenian English – ‘disagreed with me and insisted that it was “cholera nostras” which, as at present, came every summer. In spite of the pressure of my work at the time, I left all to investigate, and found it was “cholera asiatica”.’ Typically, he adds, ‘fortunately I had everything possible necessary for bacteriological examination, which I had brought from Berlin, so was fully prepared and equipped.’ But even he had no equipment for making ice to keep his cultures at the right temperature, so ‘I found the steps leading down to the rainwater cistern of the house in which I was living provided the exact temperatures, so made good use of them.’ ‘Being fully convinced,’ he goes on, ‘I warned the government. Immediately a commission of some twenty doctors was sent from Istanbul by the Sultan, who had been told by his fortune teller that his death would be caused by cholera which would come from Aleppo. An order was sent out from the health department in Istanbul that no report would be accepted unless signed by me.’  He then set out to lecture the town on precautions to be taken, as well as doing the technical side. With his usual endearing common sense and thoroughness, he forbade handshaking and, because he had discovered that ‘strong acid quickly destroys bacteria’, he advised everyone to ‘carry sour grapes in their pockets to keep the mouth and stomach acid by chewing and swallowing the juice.’ I give his own words because, not being completely familiar with English, he always gave instructions, even to my mother, as if reading straight out of a text-book, though what he said was his own.

He had great reverence for the medical men of the world, but he was never so in awe of them that he stopped using his own mind. If one way did not work well perhaps another way would. Try and see.

From In Aleppo Once, Taqui Altounyan, John Murray, London, 1969, pp. 2-3

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

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