Honigberger, Dr John Martin
Physician to the Court of Lahore (1795-1865)
Physician to the court of Lahore from 1829 to 1849 and known to his Sikh contemporaries as Martin Sahib, was a Transylvanian born at Kronstadt in 1795. He combined with his medical knowledge an ardent spirit of enquiry and adventure. He had a great fascination for the East. He left his home in 1815, and wandering through Europe, Russia, Turkey, Syria and Jerusalem, reached Cairo, where he joined the Turkish military medical service.
In 1822, he heard about an outbreak of plague in Syria and resigned his post to study the disease in which he became a specialist. He set up practice in Damascus, but moved on again after a few years and arrived at Baghdad where he was employed by the Pasha as his personal physician, with the additional charge of a local hospital. Having heard, from a travelling merchant, of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s generosity and the welcome the Europeans met with at his court, Honigberger decided to proceed to the Sikh capital. He set out in the winter of 1829 and reached Lahore in four months’ time.
Ranjit Singh was out on a military expedition when Honigberger arrived at Lahore and did not return until the rainy season. During the interval, Honigberger established his reputation as a physician. The first patient he attended, and successfully treated, was Achilles, adopted son of General Allard, who had long been suffering from a fistula on the spine. He also journeyed to Kashmir, where he cured Raja Suchet Singh of a chronic disease.
In 1833, Honigberger suddenly became homesick and made up his mind to go back to Transylvania. Ranjit Singh had developed such a liking for him that he was loath to let him go. He raised his salary and even offered him governorship of a province. “But such was my longing to depart,” writes Honigberger in his book, Thirty-five Years in the East, “that not even the Raja’s Koh-i-Noor, valued at Rs 500,000 would have tempted me to remain.”
Travelling overland, he passed through Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia, and finally reached his home in 1834, after an absence abroad of almost twenty years. But he stayed there only for six months before embarking on his travels again. After visiting several European countries, he arrived at Constantinople. During this journey, he had met in Paris Dr Hahnemann, the father of homoeopathy. He became deeply interested in the new system of medicine, and practised it at Constantinople from 1836 to 1838.
In 1838, on hearing, from Ventura, that Ranjit Singh was critically ill and desired him to return to Lahore, Honigberger abandoned his practice, went to meet Ventura at Alexandria, and returned with him to Lahore via Bombay. Here his old offices were restored to him. His immediate concern was the fast failing health of the Maharaja, who was almost paralyzed and had lost his speech. A mixture prepared by Honigberger enabled the ailing monarch to sit up and speak, and he continued to attend on him.
A newsletter, Punjab Akhbar, dated 6 June 1939, states: “He (Ranjit Singh) complained to the physicians that he felt very weak and uncomfortable in consequence of his using the talc powder but that he liked the drug brought to him by Ruttun Singh Gudvaee last night from Doctor Martin…. Doctor Martin was ordered to give some effectual medicine like the drug he had given…” But no medicine could save the Maharaja who died on 27 June 1839.
Honigberger had since married a Kashmiri woman. He continued to stay in Lahore and witnessed many of the tragic scenes such as the death of Kanvar Nau Nihal Singh and the assassination of Maharaja Sher Singh. He was dismissed by Pandit Jalla but was re-employed after the latter’s death. He continued in service even after the lapse of Sikh sovereignty and was in charge of gaol and the asylum for lunatics which he had himself founded. But he soon fell out with his British superior, Dr McGregor, and resigned. The British government, however, granted him a pension of Rs 500 per month, payable in Europe, and he retired to Hungary with his two children, who during his service in Lahore were sent to school at Mussoorie. He died in 1865.
Honigberger’s memoirs, published in London in 1852 under the title Thirty-five Years in the East, contain in addition to a record of his life, adventures and experiences, much valuable information about historical events as well as about life, manners and customs in the Punjab of his days. His primary interest, however, was his profession. He gives in his memoirs a comprehensive medical vocabulary, profusely illustrated by drawings of medical plants, and details of diseases and their remedies in homoeopathic, allopathic, Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine. Homatopathy claimed his first love.
Thirty-Five Years In The East
with its long sub-title, “Adventures, Discoveries, Experiments, and Historical Sketches, relating to the Punjab and Cashmere ; in connection with Medicine, Botany, Pharmacy, & C., together with an original Materia Medica ; and a Medical Vocabulary, in four European and five Eastern Languages,” by John Martin Honigberger (1795-1865), physician to the Sikh court from 1829 to 1849, was published in London in 1852. It contains, besides the author’s memorabilia, interesting information about the Sikh rulers and their Court as well as about various diseases and their remedies in allopathy, homoeopathy, Ayurvedic and Onani medical systems. Divided into two volumes bound in one, it covers events up to 1846. The first volume contains, in addition to historical information, lively vignettes of Punjabi life, manners and customs ; the second which primarily deals with medicine and surgery also narrates certain contemporary events. The book includes drawings of the members of the Sikh royal family as well as of the important courtiers.
Horrigberger’s account is valuable as a historical document for two reasons: he has a matter-of-fact style and is objective in his narration. Second, being deeply devoted to his profession, he has little interest in politics. He presents the historical and social situations without prejudice and partiality. For example, he does not allow his personal friendship with Avitabile to affect his objectivity while portraying the man’s character. He frankly remarks that Avitabile “exercised his sway in a most arbitrary manner… The pleasure which he took in seeing people hung by dozens must be attributed to his brain.” He acknowledges that “Ranjit Singh was a man whose talents and prudence had acquired for him a great reputation, whose memory is honoured and whose name will long occupy a glorious place in the history.” Yet, he does not forbear from referring to some of his personal weaknesses.