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”

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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! 🙂

14 responses to “The doctor prince of Thailand

  1. Waddee SiamJai –

    Interesting blog on Prince Adulyadej there. I had actually read before most of what you wrote about his story and his two sons who came to become great kings for Thailand. I had no idea though that Prince Adulyadej made such an impact and is considered the father of modern medicine in Thailand.

    I’m currently reading ‘The Revolutionary King’ which is about the life of HRH King Bhumipol Adulyadej. This is a sensitive subject with Thai people so I won’t comment much on it but I will say this. As much as I admired and respected HM the King before, after reading this book and seeing what He went through, gave up and struggled for to give to Thailand and her people I only have nothing but the very highest respect and love for him. So I guess you can count me the same as a true Thai, I bow low and raise my hands in wai high to show only the most proper respect for HM King Rama IX and the Royal Family.

    Wit

  2. I forgot it was Mahidol day today but that was a nice blog of history on HRM Prince Mahidol.

    I find it cool that right now I live in the distance from Harrow, his first son was born in Germany (points to self) and HRM King Bhumipol Adulyadej was born in Mass (I lived there also).

    Anyway, I enjoy reading Thai (Royal) history. Thanks SiamJai.

  3. Right on, Wit, IMHO” The Revolutionary King” should be read by anyone who wants to understand Thailand -when I first got hold of it I read it from cover to cover at one sitting and still re-read it now. I also find the life story of the late Queen Mother as amazing as that of Prince Mahidol.
    It certainly showed me how and why Thailand has the greatest democratic monarch in the world. (Having lived in the UK before the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation makes me some kind of authority, I guess !)

  4. SiamJai mentioned Wikipedia, which has also a large section on the general history of Thailand, which I think is very worthwhile,:-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Thailand

  5. I’m just wondering how the 69th child of the king could become the father of two future kings. How does succession to the throne work in Thailand?

  6. Betti, from what little I have read on the subject, succession to the throne in the old days was a case of survival of the fittest, likely candidate’s mothers would gather as many allies within the court around them as possible. Things could get really nasty, with rival candidates meeting “accidents” or just downright being poisoned to death by the opposition. Obviously weaker factions would make alliances with stronger factions -and maybe double-cross them if something more better was offered by another faction. The Siamese Court was a continuous hotbed of often fatal intrigue over the succession -even when the current king was young, fit and healthy.
    Then the system was reformed and made more civilised. A committee of senior court officials selected the next king. Now-days I guess this would include senior politicians as well, as Thailand is now a Democratic Monarchy. Thats all I know.

  7. thank you Khun Don. I would have thought it had to do with the higher rank of the mother or something like that. I hope not all the previous 68 royal children were eliminated, though…..

  8. ” I hope not all the previous 68 royal children were eliminated, though….. “

    Probably not -I think things had become “civilised” by then – he, was, after all, a son of King Chulalongkorn, the great reformer and moderniser..

  9. Kitjar Na Bangsar

    Waddee SiamJai,

    This article on Prince Mahidol of Songkhla is very insightful. I am a Thai Wannabe in Malaysia, and I also have potraits of the Thai Kings in my house.

    In fact, Prabat SOmdech Phra Chulachomklao Chaoyuhua (Chualalongkorn) is my patron saint. Would you believe it, many Thai CHinese believe, having an image of Chulachomklao brings good fortune?

  10. Khun Don, Wit – you guys are teasing me!!! The Revolutionary King, the book I want to read the most, is banned in Thailand. 🙁

    I think we had a conversation about it earlier, when Richard wrote a blog about the Royal Family too (Coronation Day). The author seems to have had direct access to royal family members, including the Queen Mother herself! Few Thais could say the same thing, much less Farang.

    Anyway, I wish I could read that book, but I can’t, until I get outside the borders.

    Khun Don, thanks for the extra info on hereditary rules, and for the Wikipedia link. I think that this encyclopedia may be the single source of uncensored information that us, Thailand-locked folks could get our hands on.

    Kitjar, yes, King Chulalongkorn’s image is a very sought-after commodity in Thailand, and is attributed to many special powers.

    I thank everyone for the kind comments, and for taking time to read this rather lenghty blog. I’m glad I could share with you my enthusiasm for the prince who was passionate about the medical sciences. 🙂

    Re-reading my writing, I couldn’t help but to notice the Farang influences throughout the story, like Jen pointed it out: not only the Prince’s foreign education, but also the birth of both kings, in Farangland.

    Furthermore, did you notice that the only venue the doctor prince could let his dream come true was in the Farang hospital? Thais at that time were simply not ready to accept the notion that someone of Royal descent could take a commoner’s job. I think this notion has changed by now.

    See you all later,

    SiamJai

  11. Hi SiamJai, Sorry to tantalise you with “The Revolutionary King” – I must say I find it weird that a book the King has given permission to be written and participated in willingly is banned in the country that has so much respect for Him.
    “Wikipedia” is a good source for a lot of things, but, while it does not contain down right lies, it can be less than objective sometimes, as it is written by -well- everybody.

  12. Khun Don

    Just to updates on the succession in the Thai Royal Family. Until King Mongkut, there is also a Wang Na or Uparaja which means second king. It may sound very similar to a Crown Prince, but the Wang Na has the same powers as the king.

    Also, on how the 69th son can become the father of two kings. YOu have to remember that priority after the sucession of Prajhadhipok, seniority comes with the living princes of Chulalongkorn. Just like Prajhadipok was the youngest son of Chulalongkorn, and even Rama VI, Vajiravudh was not Chulalongkorn eldest son.

    And why King Ananda Mahidol was chosen as Rama VIII, was also due to political scenario of that time, which is just after the 1932 Revolution that brought an end to absolute monarchy in Thailand.

    Students of Thai history would note the restoration of the Thai monarchy began with Nayok Sarit Thanarat in 1958. The rest, as they say, is history.

  13. Thankyou, Khun Kitjar for those totally new (to me) pieces of information.
    I hope you have a good time in Bangkok !

  14. i think this was a really informative read.. and i feel inspired too.. maybe one day i could make it into mahidol uni
    thanks 🙂