Ian Campbell Taylor: A Pharmacist's Journey in Aden

In his own words - "From time to time, older pharmacists have put pen to paper to describe their military service experiences at the beginning of their careers in conditions vastly different from today. Most of us who did National Service in the 1940s and '50s were often posted to stations all over the world, for the Empire was only just commencing to break up and garrisons were still maintained in far-flung places.

Pharmacist friends during this period had been posted to Cyprus, the West Indies, Nairobi, Singapore, Hong Kong, NATO headquarters in Paris, and Cairo, and there were usually opportunities to be posted to the military bases in the United Kingdom and Germany. Imagine my chagrin when I learned that I was going to be sent to Aden, a place regarded as one of the hottest and most uncomfortable on this earth. After spending two months at the Royal Air Force school of dispensing at Warton, I could look forward to about 16 months in Aden."

Aden: A Challenging yet Strategic Posting

"Aden is a port at the southern end of the Red Sea. It is situated on a coastal plain which is mostly desert. The town is built around the base of an extinct volcano which rises about 600 feet and thus provides a sheltered anchorage. This became strategically important after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868 and the European push to colonise Africa. Aden became a fortified refuelling port which protected the seaway to the Indian Empire and the Far East.

From about 1880 until 1960, it was well used: most ships and liners called to refuel and to allow their passengers to indulge in the wonderful duty free shopping. Steamer Point, the dock area, was frantically busy, shops staying open all the time ships were in port. The Yemenis who worked in the docks, shops and military camps lived in the nearby townships of Sheikh Othman and Crater (made famous by "Mad Mitch" during the liberation fighting)."

Aden's Role in the Empire

"Aden was administered by India until 1948 when it was administered from London. [editor's note: It was actually April 1st 1937] By 1960 there was a decline in port activity as air travel became more popular and a struggle for liberation developed resulting in the creation of the People's Republic of South Yemen in 1967. The new regime was communist inspired and influence shifted from London to Moscow. I last visited Aden in 1974. By then there were no cruise ships, most of the shops in Steamer Point were boarded up, and the economy was at a low level.

The military presence in Aden was necessary to protect the port from land and sea attack. The land area stretched 600 miles eastwards along the coast to Oman and northwards into the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia. Near Aden, though, the land border with North Yemen was only 60 miles away. This wild, mountainous country was the Aden Protectorate. There were many tribes owing allegiance to their sheikh. From time to time they would fight each other or make raids on the settlements. The British maintained forces to prevent these skirmishes upsetting the imperial lines of communication.

In the 1950s, the RAF had a major base at Khormaksar, four miles from Steamer Point. This was also a civil airport and a staging post for flights to the East, soon to be usurped by the airports in the Gulf. The RAF also staffed a hospital at Steamer Point, which provided medical facilities for servicemen, their families, tourists and the expatriate population. This preamble explains why in the 1950s there were postings for four or five pharmacists in Aden, one at Steamer Point, two or three at the main medical stores at Maalla and one at the Aden Protectorate Levies hospital (ALH) near Khormaksar. These posts were filled by National Servicemen who would have come from Warton and be placed in charge of a busy section. It was a heavy responsibility for a young man filling his first managerial post."

Military and Medical Duties in Aden

"I was posted to the main hospital at Steamer Point. The dispensary provided medicines to the wards and a small amount of outpatient dispensing. The hospital had about 180 inpatient beds and was a base hospital serving all the British service personnel in Aden. The dispensary was small and situated on the first floor overlooking the sea - pleasant conditions, in spite of the weekly inspection by the hospital commander. Particular note was taken of the Controlled Drugs, which had to balance with the amount shown in the register.

Most National Service pharmacists would be sergeants by the end of their two years. They would spend most of their time as corporals. With this rank you were expected to take a turn as duty NCO. At the hospital, this was usually an evening stint dealing with non-clinical matters, organising responses to emergency calls, transport for discharged patients and fetching of urgent supplies. There were often accidents in the port involving tourists or service personnel, for which ambulances or transport would have to be sent.

We were sometimes able to go swimming, which was restricted to beaches protected by shark netting. At cooler times, early in the morning, we were able to walk round the rim of the crater, enjoying the magnificent views.

After two months I was posted to ALH, where I found myself in charge of medical supplies at the hospital. The dispensary was responsible for supplying medicines to inpatients and outpatients of the hospital and to 13 outposts in the Aden Protectorate. The Levies (levied soldiers) were locally recruited, the active strength being about 1,500 men. Medical cover was given to the families and to former serving members, about 10,000 people in all. It was a real perk, for it was free; at that time, the rest of the population had to contribute to their medical costs. The Levies had a small camel corps and a few horses, which were used up country in areas inaccessible to motor transport. We also provided the veterinary medicines to this unit."

Challenges and Adaptations

"ALH was a general hospital administered by the RAF. There were about 160 beds, including a section for women from which we men were banned. The hospital was commanded by an RAF doctor assisted by two warrant officers, and administration and supplies staff. Medical cover was provided by three RAF doctors and a surgeon. These were assisted at busy times by local GPs. The other RAF personnel were two male nurses, two laboratory technicians and myself. Local people made up the rest of the staff and all of them would have been trained on site.

The dispensary was staffed by myself and two assistant dispensers, both of whom spoke English and had passed a trade test. The dispensary consisted of a large room with a small store room nearby. Equipment was sparse: a refrigerator, a water deioniser, a still and a good range of pots and pans. The work was busy and intense during the popular outpatient sessions. All liquids and ointments were made in the dispensary from raw materials obtained from central medical stores. Our budget did allow for a few items to be purchased locally if out of stock at the CMS. The formulary, built up by my predecessors, consisted of not more than 30 items.

​Severe pain was controlled by parenteral and oral forms of morphine. Aspirin or APC tablets were the only alternative. Large quantities of these tablets were sent to the outposts. Muscle pains were treated with rubefacients mainly based on methyl salicylate. Skin problems were frequent, infections being treated with gentian violet solution, and wounds with merthiolate or sulphanilamide powder. Zinc ointment was also frequently used for minor skin infections. Dry skin conditions needed oily or aqueous cream. Systemic infections were treated with sulphonamides, and when tuberculosis was diagnosed streptomycin was given.

Influenza, colds and bronchitis were common, in spite of the average daily shade temperature of 35C. Large quantities of mist expect and mist pot iod ammon were made, along with codeine linctus. Oral rehydration therapy had not come into vogue, so tummy troubles were treated with kaolin and morphine mixture or kaolin mixture for children.

Malaria was common. Both Paludrine and mepacrine were use for prophylaxis and treatment. Leprosy was also common. Although we stocked dapsone, it did not seem effective and most patients were sent to an isolation hospital in Sheik Othman.

Most of the patients were illiterate, certainly in English and probably in Arabic. This threw up the problem of ensuring that patients understood how to take or use their medicines. The dispensing staff ensured that all instructions were understood before the patient left the dispensary - patient counselling 25 years before it became fashionable at home.

We servicemen, working with locals, were expected to pass a language test. In my case, this consisted of learning about 200 words or phrases and being able to give simple commands relating to my profession. Success meant another £1 per week in one's pay - well worth having in those days.

Regular visits to the camel lines were made to supply medicaments. Kaolin poultice to reduce swellings was called for, as were antiseptic dressings, anthelmintics, and, most frequently of all, a laxative. There was nothing more disagreeable than a constipated camel with its tummy rumbling and noxious odours issuing from each end of its alimentary canal. A couple of handfuls of Epsom salts in a bucketful of water, which was usually readily drunk, seemed to do the trick.

We did ensure that the operating theatres were in good order. On occasions, I was asked to take photographs of operations. Medicinal gases were the responsibility of the hospital medical store presided over by a warrant officer. There were regular stockchecks, for even oxygen cylinders seemed to have legs! It fascinated me how stores experts could convert a surplus tin of hypodermic needles to a missing oxygen cylinder, by adjusting the stock records. Regular, monthly orders were supplied to APL camps up country. During my year I made several trips to the camps to check stocks and inventories. These trips were often combined with a medical team who were vaccinating personnel against smallpox. (It is pleasing to note that the area is now smallpox free.)

At ALH, our working day was from 6am until 1.30pm, with a meal break of an hour. One evening in four I would be rostered to be duty NCO at the hospital from 5.30pm until 9.30pm. During this period, wards would be inspected, complaints dealt with, and arriving patients, often emergencies, would be checked. Time passed quickly. Having been a scoutmaster, I helped out at the local scout troop in my spare time. Weekend camps were organised in Sheik Othman Gardens where there were shady palm trees and many colourful tropical bushes. It was irrigated by canals of fresh water, so it was always cool there.

National Service gave me a chance to travel, use my qualifications and develop skills which later helped me a lot while working and living in the Middle East. And what is more, I enjoyed it."

The Final Days and Legacy of Ian Campbell Taylor

Ian Campbell Taylor passed away on 1 December 2001, leaving behind a legacy of service and adventure. His experiences as a pharmacist in Aden during a pivotal era in the region's history offer valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of such a career. His dedication to his profession, coupled with his adaptability and cultural engagement, stand as a testament to the impactful role pharmacists have played in global healthcare settings.

Ian's story is a vivid reminder of the significant contributions and sacrifices made by National Service pharmacists, whose work often took them to some of the most challenging yet rewarding locations around the world. His death marked the end of a life rich in experiences and contributions to the field of pharmacy and healthcare in challenging environments.