A man of many firsts

Guest post by Dechen Pemba

Dr Tsewang Yishey Pemba, who has died aged 79, was the first Tibetan to be trained in western medicine, and served as consultant physician to Bhutan’s royal family.
Dr Tsewang Yishey Pemba, MBBS (London) FRCS He can claim many firsts.  With an MBBS degree from University college hospital, London in 1955, Dr Pemba was the first Tibetan student to receive a British medical qualification.

He helped to found the first hospital in Paro, Bhutan, and in 1967 became the first Tibetan to obtain the fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Extra to his medical achievements, Dr Pemba is widely regarded to have written the first work of fiction by a Tibetan in English, “Idols on the Path”, published in 1966.

Dr Pemba was born in 1932 in Gyantse, Tibet.  His father’s work with the British mission in Tibet meant that he spent his childhood in Gyantse, Yatung, and also Lhasa, where he was present at the installation of the 14th Dalai Lama.  Although receiving no formal education until the age of 9, Dr Pemba thrived at Victoria School in Kurseong, West Bengal, India and in 1949 went on to study for his medical degree at University College, London, UK.

Following a short stint working at a hospital in Kalimpong, West Bengal, Dr Pemba was recruited in 1956 by the future Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji, to work as a medical officer in the town of Paro.

At the time, there were only three modern trained doctors in the country and, with no electricity, water, modern roads or communications, he had to walk everywhere or ride horses and mules.  It was during this period that he wrote his memoirs “Young Days in Tibet”, published by Jonathan Cape in 1957, the first autobiographical account by a Tibetan in English.

By 1959, Dr Pemba was back in Darjeeling, working in Dooars & Darjeeling medical association hospital (DDMA), a hospital under the aegis of the Indian Tea association.  With the uprising in Lhasa, Tibet, against the occupying Chinese forces, thousands of refugees were fleeing to India, many crowding into Darjeeling.

Dr Pemba spent his free time in this period working as a volunteer for the Tibetan refugee school and the Tibetan refugee self-help centre.  Dr Pemba could count every prominent Tibetan refugee, monk and official, who fled from Tibet as one of his patients.

His 1966 novel, “Idols on the Path” was born in this period and based on the fledgling Tibetan diaspora.  For his medical work, Dr Pemba became a well-known and prominent figure in the Himalayas.

In 1965, Dr Pemba returned to London to train as a surgeon.  He was awarded the Hallett Prize in 1966 for standing first in the primary examinations of the royal college of surgeons and in 1967 obtained their fellowship.

On returning to India, Dr Pemba worked in Darjeeling, he befriended famous Catholic thinker Thomas Merton in this period, and moved back to Bhutan in the mid-1980s to become Superintendent of the National Referral Hospital, Thimphu.  Until 1992, Dr Pemba lived in Bhutan and was an appointed United Nations certifying doctor, sat on the committee devising a Bhutan national formulary and, in 1989, was a member of the Bhutan delegation to WHO in Geneva.

Dr Pemba served as consulting physician to Bhutan’s royal family in this period as well.

Dr Pemba officially retired in 1992, but worked privately and also travelled extensively to the USA, Europe and Japan.  Between 2000 and 2005, he made several visits to New York and worked, for a period, as a lecturer in anatomy and physiology.  In 2007, Dr Pemba paid a visit to Tibet after almost 60 years, “capturing old memories and renewing ties and seeing a totally changed Tibet”.

Beyond the medical profession, Dr Pemba was an avid follower of the arts, and never stopped reading and writing fiction, even up to his last days.  Dr Pemba is survived by his wife, Tsering Sangmo, and four children, a fifth child pre-deceased him in 2009.

Dr Tsewang Yishey Pemba, born June 5 1932, died November 26 2011.