History of our first medics

Dr Kabo Tshering, “was well read and having experienced living in British India, he maintained a lifestyle that was far ahead of his time in Bhutan.” Stories of how our Second King would indulge the Bhutanese medical doctor and overlook his lifestyle are recorded in the “Medical History of Bhutan.” 

According to the authors of the book, Drs Tandin Dorji and Bjorn Melgaard, “Even King Jigme Wangchuck, who was known to be firm and rigorous regarding driglam namzha (etiquette) often indulged in and overlooked his lifestyle. He was one of the few allowed to smoke in His Majesty’s presence.

Born in 1916 in the small village of Pajakha in Haa, Dr Kabo Tshering is the second western-trained biomedical doctor of our country. 

In 1939, during the early days of the Second World War, he was admitted in the Campbell Medical School in Calcutta. Today, the school is known as Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College. Three years later, in 1942, Dr Kabo graduated from the medical school. He was then recruited into the Indian Army Medical Corps.  As a sub-assistant surgeon, he served in Burma, where the British were fighting the Japanese. 

Dr Kabo was taller than most Bhutanese.  With his Western habits, he could easily pass for a European. Stories are told of how he would often deck himself up in his uniform with medals pinned on his chest. The uniform and decorations became the subject of gossip and speculation.  No one knew exactly his military career until Gongzim Sonam Tobgye’s letter dated 1st July 1947, to the Political Officer in Sikkim surfaced. 

According to the recently discovered letter, “Regarding Captain Kabo Tshring’s [si] qualification. I have the honour to inform you that he got a commission in the Indian Army Medical Corps in November 1944 as a second Lieutenant and stayed for sometime in Lucknow and went for training in Poona for three months where he got the rank of full Lieutenant. He remained in India till September 1945 and then went overseas and was in the active service till August 1946 and got the rank of Captain and after that he was released. At present he is helping here in the Hospital to get some further practical experience.” 

After gaining experience, Dr Kabo returned home to serve our second King. After serving as the royal physician for more than five years, in 1951 he was sent to Wangdue Phodrang to set up the army medical hospital which also provided medical services to the people in the area.  

Ten years later, in 1961, Dr. Kabo fell ill. He was sent to Calcutta for treatment. He returned home after a year, and died three months later in Thimphu at the age of 46. 

Our first doctor

In 1926 two boys, namely Phangchung and Phub Gyeltshen, who had just passed the matriculation (10th grade) exams were sent to Calcutta to be trained as doctors.

 Phangchung was born in Bartsham but a great grandson claims he was from Bidung in Trashigang. His friend Phub Gyeltshen was from Nobgang village from Sama Gewog in Haa.  

Both were expected to complete their studies in 1930 but neither were able to do so. Phub Gyeltshen fondly known as Lopen Achu contracted tuberculosis while in Calcutta and had to give up his studies. He returned home and did the work of a doctor, although he was not fully qualified. He worked mainly in the Dzongkhags of Trongsa, Bumthang and Punakha. The King’s retainers acknowledged his work and referred to him as Doctor Phub. Lopen Achu died at the age of 36, probably due to complications of tuberculosis. 

Dr Phangchung

However, Phangchung was able to complete his studies. After repeating his third year he graduated in 1931, making him the first western-trained biomedical doctor in the country.

After completing a year of internship, Dr Phangchung returned home to serve as the court physician. He moved with the royal court between Bumthang and Trongsa.  His clinic was a shack and his main problem was not having sufficient medicines. Dr Phangchung is remembered as a hard worker who saw every patient that came his way. Like our second medico, Dr Kabo, he was well read and considered proficient in his profession.

For his services and contributions to developing public health, our second King rewarded Dr Pangchung with a house and gifted him a parcel of land in Bidung. In 1946, he died in his village after a short illness. 

Compounders and vets

While our first doctor graduated in 1931, the first compounders had graduated three years earlier, in 1928. Our first two veterinarians graduated in 1929 and 1930.

In 1928, Babu Khoe and Kurtop Tobgay were sent to be trained as compounders at Charteris Hospital in Kalimpong.  They became the country’s first compounders.  Babu Khoe set up a dispensary in Haa with his wife who was a nurse. 

On the other hand, compounder Kurtop Tobgay became Dr Phangchung’s assistant. Tobgay was from Lhuntse. He later contracted a chronic illness and was sent to Calcutta for treatment that lasted for over a year. He returned to Thimphu but succumbed to his illness, dying at the age of 46. 

We can also note that according to British records, two boys, Karchung and Jitshi, were sent to the Bengal Veterinary College, Calcutta, for training as veterinary assistants on a three-year course.

One passed his final examination in March 1929 and returned to Bhutan while the other, who failed, remained at the College. The student reported to have failed repeated the year, passed the examination in March 1930 and then returned home to work in Bhutan. 

Our first medics were products of our First King’s vision and the dividend of his investment. In 1914, under the command of our First King, Gongzim Ugyen Dorji set up the first formal school in Haa. According to the British records, 46 students, mainly from Haa and the region, were enrolled in the school.  Without any teachers in the country, the Church of Scotland Mission at Kalimpong sent the teachers in Haa to educate the boys. In the winter, these boys trekked to Kalimpong to continue their studies.

Our first seven medics were the product of the farsighted vision of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. These unsung heros whose life and contributions almost faded into oblivion worked hard and made sacrifices to lay the foundation and carve the road of our modern health care system. 

Contributed by

Tshering Tashi

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