SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

Elisabeth Macbean Ross – the ‘Lady Doctor of Bakhtiari Land’

Dr Ross was acting as medical officer in "the romantic isles of Colonsay and Oronsay" when she saw and answered an advertisement: "Wanted a Lady Doctor for the East".

Four weeks later she was travelling across Russia, bound for Isfahan, or rather the European enclave at Julfa: "Absolutely unprejudiced at the outset, [she was] driven to the conclusion that Julfa contains within its walls a larger proportion of pretentiousness per square yard and a greater percentage of conceit per individual than any other like area".

After a stultifying three years, and a chance encounter with “Samsam-os Soltaneh, Ilkhan of the Bakhtiaris . . shortly after he had surprised Isfahan and constituted himself de facto Governor thereof", she set out for Bakhtiari Land.

There, "[her] work was to a great extent - but by no means exclusively - among the Bibis or great ladies, wives, sisters and mothers of the leading Khans. [Her] visits often lasted over several weeks in one Ghabeh or castle". Dr Ross gives “first-hand information as to the life, the point of view, and the changing conditions among these virile, if unstable, tribesmen”, including writing strongly in support of polygamy “under the primitive conditions that prevail”.

She concluded with some general ideas on the Bakhtiari tribe: "The Bakhtiaris are the only tribe who have fought even ostensibly for more than their own hand. They have made sacrifices for the cause of nationalism, however much or little they understand what it means, but they are not fitted by temperament, disposition or training, to maintain the leading part in a united Persia".