Dr Theodore Leighton Pennell died on March 23, 1912, at the age of 45. His conviction was – in his own words – “a missionary, like a soldier, should obey without question, and go where he is sent.” And go he did – to North-west India, on the border of Afghanistan.
Pennell was a brilliant medical student who won numerous honours during his studies. He achieved his academic supremacy despite being devoted to Christian work as well as his studies. He worked among the working class lads of Euston Road, supporting the working boys’ club in Tottenham Court Road.
He was son to a gifted missionary doctor who had served in Brazil and died when Theodore was but a lad. His mother then saw to his education and also impressed upon him that missionary service was the highest call on a man’s life. He was keen to get to the field as quickly as possible, but his mother restrained him until his studies were complete.
He was 25 years of age when he went to India – and his widowed mother went with him!
In 1892 lie went out to India as an honorary medical missionary under the Church Missionary Society, and was at first appointed to the existing Medical Mission at Dera Ismail Kihlan. In 1893 he was transferred to the village of Bannu, on the North-West Frontier of India, where he had the responsibility of opening up a medical mission.
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He erected a hospital – of sorts – and before long “he was treating as many as 220 patients a day” (Blazing New Trails, by A. Wallace, page 80).
He also incurred the wrath of the Moslem mullahs, who would often stone him when he attempted to preach.
Dr Pennell adopted Indian dress, ate Indian food, and became proficient in their tongue. Once, during a visit to Lahore, he attended a service in the Cathedral, only to find that the verger denied him entrance into the “English” pews. After nine years in Bannu there were 26 converts. Fear of Islamic retaliation kept many from placing their faith in the Lord Jesus. The year 1903 saw him awarded a silver medal by the Indian Government for medical services rendered, and in 1911 he was awarded a gold one.
During a brief trip home to England for an operation for the removal of a loose cartilage in his knee, his mother took ill in India and died. In 1908 he married a well educated Parsee lady named Alice, who heartily shared in his medical work. He also did much toward education, and included sport activity for the male students, to help strengthen their physical frame. Pennell wrote a captivating book about his experiences in northern India, “Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier“.
On his return hundreds of Indians gave him a rousing welcome. He recalled that when he first arrived hardly anyone would even give him a drink of water. Two years later he again returned to England, taking Alice with him. He needed to recuperate from a severe attack of enteric fever. The demands of his work had taken a toll on his body and his resilience.
Back in Indian in March, 1912, he was operating, when he caught septicaemia, and passed into his Saviour’s presence. Just a few days earlier a younger doctor from London, William Barnett, who was sent to work with Pennell, also died of septicaemia in the Bannu Hospital at the age of 32.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com