The doctor prince of Thailand

The reason for the quick follow-up is that today is… Mahidol’s Day! I doubt that many are aware of this, as even in Thailand it’s not a nationally celebrated holiday. He is remembered only by those in the field of medical and health-related sciences. Nevertheless, I’d like to introduce to you the life story of this important royal figure, one whose deeds impressed me the most.

Prince Mahidol Adulyadej – does that last name sound familiar? Mahidol Although he never became king, he gave not one, but two kings to the Thai nation. He was the father of the late Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), and the current monarch HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). Prince Mahidol is also regarded as the father of modern medicine and public health in Thailand. You’ll see why, if you read his fascinating life story.

Royal Heritage
Prince Mahidol was born in 1892, first day of the year. He was the 69th child of the famous King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). He started his education in the Grand Palace, along with his half-brothers and sisters. Here he got the title “Prince of Songkla”.

In the Farang Military
He continued his studies in England at Harrow for one and a half years, then started a military career in Germany, thanks to the close relations of his Royal father with the Emperor William II. He was transferred from Potsdam to Berlin, on the orders of his Royal brother, Rama VI.

In 1914, when the first World War broke out, Prince Mahidol was ordered back from Germany, because Thailand declared neutrality at that time. (A side note: he gave the Germans a submarine design, for which he won a competition).

Back home, the Prince of Songkla was assinged a teaching post at the Royal Thai Navy. Here he continued designing small miliatry vessels: submarines and torpedo boats, which led to a conflict in a meeting: he was overruled by british-educated military seniors. He resigned from the Navy after only nine months of joining, giving the reason that his expertise would never be put to use there. No one knew that this was a turning point of national proportion…

Turning point by the river
Let me introduce a new player to the story: Prince Rangsit, half brother of Prince Mahidol. Here I should mention that Prince Mahidol’s parents were both royal, while Prince Rangsit was a lesser prince – son of a Royal-commoner union. He was also the Chief of Royal Medical College. Medical and health education got very little attention at that time, and so his college and the associated Siriraj Hospital was understaffed, underequipped, and crowded – in other words, he needed much help. He thought that if he could get a royal person with more prestige to support his cause, it would get more publicity, and hence more funding.

Following his resignation from the Royal Navy, Prince Mahidol received an invitation to a boat trip from Prince Rangsit. This trip of the Bangkok Yai and Bangkok Noi canals happened to include Siriraj Hospital en route. They stopped there to look around. Having seen Prince Mahidol’s reaction to the sorry state of the hospital, his brother asked whether he’d like to help. The answer at that time, however, was lukewarm, being concerned that Prince Mahidol knew nothing about medicine. In a few days however, he agreed, after he decided that he would also study in related fields himself.

Study in Farangland again
He went to study public health in the US, at Harvard, Mass. He also arranged four students to study in the US as well. He provided scholarships for two from his own money. It just happened that one of the chosen nursing students was the 18 year-old Miss Sangwal Talabhat, future wife of Prince Mahidol and mother of two future kings of Thailand.

Nice story, no? 🙂 But it doesn’t end here. His first son, Ananda Mahidol was born in Germany. This young boy later became Rama VIII. His yongest son, Prince Bhumibol was born in Massachusetts. He came to the throne as Rama IX, following the still unexplained, violent death of his brother.

Six months after the birth of Prince Bhumibol, Prince Mahidol received his MD cum laude, and returned to Thailand. He wished to do internship at Siriraj hospital, but he was not allowed, because people were uncomfortable with a prince working as an intern. So he chose another hospital with a bit more egalitarian attitude: the Farang missionary-run McCormick Hospital in Chiang Mai. His patients referred to him as “Maw Chao Fa” – the doctor prince.

The story ends – or does it?
However, three weeks in working, a tragedy happened: he had to go to Bangkok due to kidney and liver problems. He could never return to Chiang Mai. Prince Mahidol died on September 24, 1929 at Sapathum Palace.

He left an enourmous legacy to the Thai nation. Students sent abroad on his scholarships became key players in modern medicine in Thailand; teaching, establishing modern medical schools and universities all over the country. Mahidol University bears his name, and regarded as one of the best medical schools in Thailand.

However, above all material heritage, is his most important legacy: his teaching of the spirit of brotherhood towards all human beings without distinction of any kind. His advice continues to impact students with the dignity and the value of life: “I do not wish you to be only a doctor, but I also want you to be a human being”


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back with Mahidol’s Day stories from CMU, soon. Until then, you can get more details of the story of the doctor prince from the sources I used for this blog. The most extensive one, with pretty pictures and comments from important people is found on the Bangkok Post page. Interesting insights and small details are provided in a piece titled The Royal Father of His Majesty the King, by the Royal Thai Embassy, Washington DC.

However, you have to be careful. Bear in mind that we are reading about Thai monarchy here; truth is likely to be colored pink, reality being distorted, to paint the person in a better light. My advice: read many sources and compare them to get a better idea of the story. I found a source that I think is as reliable and censor-free as it gets: Mahidol Adulyadej on Wikipedia.

Have fun! 🙂

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