Zahira  Abdin, FRCP

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The following is abstracted from a query recently sent to  Professor Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians, London. requesting the update of the Munk's roll - a registry of past members and fellows of the RCP, on occasion of the passing of Dr. Abdin -  It has regretfully taken us, her family, nearly five years, to do what was necessary.  M.A.F. December, 2006

 

"  I am writing with reference to my mother, Dr. Zahira H. Abdin, who has recently passed away (1917-2002). She was the first Egyptian lady to become a member of the Royal College of Physicians (Internal Medicine) and later a Fellow of the Royal College. I was very distressed not to find her name in your registry of members and fellows of the RCP in your site (Munk roll). I am writing a biography about her and would be grateful if you could assist in verifying this and appreciate your support for updating the registry.

 To update you on her biography, here's a synopsis of her curriculum vitae:

Dr. Abdin, a pediatrician and rheumatic heart disease specialist, was a most remarkable woman whose  prolific accomplishments during a  fruitful life of devoted public service and professional excellence have not gone unacknowledged, both in her home country and internationally.  In Egypt she was awarded the honorary title of Mother of Egyptian Doctors by the First Lady in an official ceremony in the early nineties. (I believe it was on occasion of a centennial celebration of the founding of the medical school in Egypt)- and, earlier, in 1980 she was awarded an honorary MD (Master of Divinity) by Edinburgh University.

  

She pioneered the field of social pediatrics in the Middle East in the fifties as part of a relentless and comprehensive campaign against rheumatic heart disease, which was one of the leading causes of mortality among children at this time. Less than two decades later, the incidence of fatalities from rheumatic heart disease has dropped from 47 per cent to less than 3 per cent. The Chair of Social Pediatrics was established in the Aburreesh Children’s Hospital, Kasr al Aini, in recognition of her work. 

 

The founding of the Dubai Medical College (DMCG) for Girls 20 years later, in 1986, came as a crowning glory to many other foundations and institutions she had set up in the intervening years: most notably, the Free Pyramid Rheumatic Heart Center and its offshoots in schools of medicine throughout Egypt and the Child Health Institute, in Dokki Cairo.  The DMGC was noted for its innovative program combining the best of both professional and ethical ingredients in its curriculum, and it was promptly accredited regionally and internationally, by the time it graduated its first batch of students in 1991.

 

She was an outstanding clinician and a first rate academic researcher and scholar, a teacher loved by her pupils, and an inspiration and model to countless others. Her public outreach and philanthropy extended to wide and varied constituencies of potentially underprivileged and neglected sectors of the population including, besides poor and sick children, widows and orphans, the lonely and elderly, and itinerant students. Her contribution to the betterment of society included a holistic concept of health and wellbeing that took her to the more general field of education, where she broke new ground with a chain of model Islamic Language Schools.

 

At the behest of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Dr. Abdin  presided over the Young Women’s Muslim Association, Egypt’s equivalent of the YWCA - coming to the rescue of what was an ailing institution at the time and leaving it anchored and sure-footed nearly twenty years later.  In recognition of her administrative skills and proficient institutional and social work, she was awarded the Republic’s Order of Merit of the First Degree, one among many others to follow in later years, consistent with a pattern that had marked a distinguished career of public service and excellence from its beginnings when she came out top of class 1936 in the Kingdom among the thousands graduating their secondary education at the time. From thereon, her maiden appointment to the staff of the venerable college, another ‘first’ of its kind step in the history of the school, would open the way to women medical doctors to go into teaching. In 1991 she was the first woman from outside Europe to receive the prestigious Elizabeth Norgall Prize, likewise opening the door for other nominations and awards from the Middle East.  

 

The woman whose towering strength and resolve were matched only by an inexhaustible fund of love and compassion that embraced all, beginning and ending with a consuming passion for the weak and helpless and undertrodden, would pursue her life guided by the strength of her convictions and nourished by the depth of a spirituality that fed both her mind and soul. She led by example and practiced what she preached in pursuit of restoring the medical profession to its original vocation of being the business of selfless and soulful agents, earthly angels of mercy, who walked the earth.  By the time she passed, she had stoically survived the trials and tribulations of a decade of sorrows and reverses signaled in by the onset of a self-diagnosed breast malignancy in 1992 and punctuated by recurring visits to the emergency room until finally her frail body caved in to release her to return to her eternal home.  More than the hospitals, schools, charitable institutions and foundations she built in a life-time of sacrifice and struggle, and unremitting love and giving, she left behind her a legacy and a model that speaks to the needs of the many communities whose fate were touched by her grace.

 

I was understandably surprised when I recently checked out your reputable registry, the Munk’s Roll, and found no mention of Dr. Abdin. A search under alphabetical listings did not yield up any results, nor was the chronological search by year of award of degree, whether in 1948 (MRCP) or in 1978 (FRCP) any more helpful. It was then that I realized that somehow this oversight must reflect a failing on our side, her immediate family and survivors, who were not aware of the need to inform you of her passing away - over four years ago. Without an obituary it seems, there was no listing...

 I hope that in taking this initiative to write to you, Professor Gilmore, it may now be possible to update the registry and include her as a worthy Fellow of the RCP.   As far as I know, she is one of the few women from outside the UK / Europe to earn access to this prestigious institution – especially,  back in the forties, in the immediate post-war years, when I believe the exams for admission were far tougher, more rigorous and competitive, and RCP membership constituted a rare privilege. I was a toddler at her heels at the time, and I would like to have it known for the benefit of posterity that this did not keep a young and devoted mother from striving and succeeding, where few could brave it through.

 In documenting her biography I hope to be taking up a modest role in rendering her memory an inspiration to a future generation, much in the same way in which her lifetime role and pursuits were meaningful and inspiring to those who were there to witness and to benefit from them.  I feel this is the least I could try to do for her, in keeping with her own example and spirit. She would not have liked to consecrate her own memory in itself, as she was always keen to avoid the lime light, shunning all publicity, too busy with the enormity of the charge of serving the poor, the sick, and needy, battling the endless hurdles in the way of improving the lot of a world in turmoil, always doing so without much fuss or flurry, working modestly, quietly, persistently, intelligently, gently, behind the scenes,  one step at a time, tending to a labor of love, with the right balance of gentle determination and focused resolve… In short, she sought neither wealth nor fame: rather, it was quite the reverse, where it was fame and wealth that sought her out…and she used both to serve the constituencies to which she had dedicated her learning and skills.  So, it is in this spirit, that I too hope to undertake a daunting task, not to celebrate the accomplishments and uphold the memory of my mother as an end in itself, as worthy and dear to my heart as such aims are, but rather so that a role model and example might be held up to a generation that is in dire need of such models in our troubled and confused age.

 

 Mona Abul Fadl, Ph.D, London University,

Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University

President of Association of Studies of Women in Civilization (ASWIC)

 

 For an Arabic Brief on Dr. Abdin's C.V. check out the following link.

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