x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai physician's boasts impressive medical history collection

Dubai-raised physician Farhan Asrar talks to Hugo Berger about his obsession for collecting letters and autographs from the pioneers of modern medicine.

These old surgical needles are just a small part of Farhan Asrar's collection, which is one of the biggest of its kind in the world. J Adam Huggins for The National
These old surgical needles are just a small part of Farhan Asrar's collection, which is one of the biggest of its kind in the world. J Adam Huggins for The National

As somewhat of a child prodigy, Farhan Asrar had been fast-tracked through high school and was enrolled as a first-year medical student by the time he was just 16 years old.

But not only was he taking his first steps towards an illustrious career in medicine, he'd also begun to develop a pet interest that has since become an obsession.

Born, raised and schooled in Dubai, Asrar, 32, who is of Pakistani and Indian descent, emigrated from the UAE to Canada a decade ago to work at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Since then he has risen through the ranks at the university to the position of chief resident medical doctor in the institution's public health and preventive medicine programme.

His work in this field recently led to him being honoured with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada Leadership Award.

On top of his career success, the high-flying physician has managed to acquire an extensive repository of personal correspondence and autographs from some of the greatest names in medical history.

Speaking from his home in Mississauga, near Toronto, he recounts what sparked his fascination in this subject.

"It all started when I was about 10 or 11 years old. A lot of it came from my mother, Farida, who had a very keen interest in history and was a collector herself," he reminisces.

"It really began with me collecting stamps. At first it wasn't anything specialised, but a few years later I decided to follow a career in medicine.

"So from this I turned my attention to collecting stamps with a medical theme."

With his hoard coming close to 10,000 stamps featuring physicians, medical discoveries, or other related designs, he turned his attention to historic medical artefacts.

Now his private collection stands at hundreds of rare and valuable pieces originating from famous physicians, medical pioneers and Nobel laureates.

Although he refuses to name a favourite item, Asrar does cite a letter from William Osler, the Canadian physician, who's often regarded as the father of modern medicine.

His most far-reaching innovation was insisting that trainee doctors should increase the amount of face-to-face interaction with their patients, as well as thoroughly analysing their medical history. Or, as Osler put it, "listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis".

Osler was also instrumental in founding the renowned Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, US, in 1893, before becoming a professor at Oxford University in the UK.

Asrar's letter, which he acquired from a medical auction house for a "significant sum", is addressed to a friend called Philpot. Dated March 17, 1914, it is embossed "From the Regius Professor of Medicine, Oxford", Osler's post at the time of writing.

Asrar says: "If you ask most doctors 'who is the greatest physician?' his name would be at the top of the list. When you think about innovations such as taking patient history and communicating with patients, he was the guy who started it all.

"He is definitely one of my heroes. In fact, most physicians with an eye on the history would say he is one of their heroes. Osler's letters are such a rarity, so owning it is a great honour for me."

Although this may be among the jewels of Asrar's collection in terms of value, it is a personal letter from another medical great that he treasures the most.

He explains: "I have quite a few pieces from heart surgery pioneers - people such as Christiaan Barnard, Michael Debakey and Adrian Kantrowitz - because this is a part of medical science that I find really fascinating.

"But I'm especially proud of a personal letter I have from one of these pioneers, Denton Cooley."

Cooley, now 92, was an American heart surgeon who is perhaps most famous for carrying out, in 1969, the first transplant using a synthetic heart.

"I wrote him a letter saying I was a collector and an admirer of his," Asrar recalls, "and I was fortunate enough for him to reply with a handwritten letter personally to me explaining his experiences with implantation of the artificial heart. Obviously that was a hugely moving moment for me."

Another prized item is a note written by William Williams Keen, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest surgeons of the early 20th century.

Keen is exalted for carrying out the first successful brain surgery in the United States, and for saving the life of future president Franklin D Roosevelt when he was struck down with polio in 1921.

Keen's letter, dated December 11, 1918, was written to Dr AM Eaton and mentions his work with the medical reserve corps during the First Word War, as well as a photograph that he was sending to Dr Eaton. However, the note is written in an illegible scrawl, proving that the old line about doctors' handwriting was as true back then as it is today.

Other rarities include autographs from the likes of Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery; Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who developed a vaccine for polio; and Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who pioneered the discovery of insulin.

Asrar believes collecting the items furthers his understanding of the principles and mindsets of his medical heroes.

"The work that these guys did has saved millions of lives, so it's a huge magnitude to own something directly from them," he says. "So one recognises, appreciates and respects them more as a consequence.

"You look at the case of Banting and Best; they sold the entire rights [for their discovery] to the University of Toronto for one dollar, or Salk, who refused to patent his vaccine or accept money for it.

"They were motivated by doing the right thing and sharing their knowledge, rather than by making money. That has been something that has inspired me throughout my career," he says.

"So collecting these pieces has been a humbling learning experience for me.

"I would consider each and every item to be rare and special as each has a story to tell about a great medical pioneer who made history and saved many lives in the process."

Asrar's collection is stored in special moisture-proof cabinets in his home. As well as expanding his ever-growing hoard - he's currently trying to track down research papers belonging to every recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine from its inauguration in 1901 to the present day - he has more lofty plans.

"Whenever I tell my fellow physicians about my collection they are amazed to hear about some of the pieces I own," he says.

"So the plan is to continue to enhance the collection, and with this my knowledge and awareness. It's been a learning experience for me and I feel I can appreciate these pioneers a lot more."

From this, he feels, he can inspire the trainee doctors of today with the achievements of their illustrious predecessors.

"I'm being invited locally, nationally and internationally to exhibit my collection, so as time permits I'll consider it, as I would like to honour and recognise our medical pioneers, as well as promote and revive such healthy hobbies among future generations."

This includes the possibility of sending some key pieces to the Middle East for display.

"I'm open to considering having an exhibition of my collection in the UAE; after all, this was where this all started for me," he says.

Hugo Berger is a features writer for The National.