Ernest Haik Riddall Altounyan

Dr Ernest Altounyan

Barbara Altounyan, an oral history specialist herself, talked to us about her family and their incredible stories. The Altounyans originally lived in Aleppo, Syria, where Aram Assadour Altounyan and his wife Harriet Riddell founded a very innovative hospital in the 1890s, which was operational during WW1 and was turned into a military school later on. According to a BBC article, the hospital was modelled “…on those they had encountered in the West – it would receive regular shipments of equipment and staff from the UK. As a result, the hospital gained a reputation among dignitaries, colonialists and expatriates as the place to be treated in the region. Agatha Christie passed through on her way to the digs of northern Syria with her archaeologist husband Max Malloran. Family friend TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – was treated for tuberculosis at the hospital. EM Forster stayed too”.

A A Altounyan’s son, Ernest became a doctor too, after being educated at Rugby school and then Cambridge. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during WW1 and was awarded the Military Cross in France for gallantry in action. He was close friends with T E Lawrence, who he met when Lawrence was an archaeologist. He returned to his father’s hospital after the war where he worked as a surgeon until the Suez campaign in 1958 meant that the hospital was seized and the family had to leave Syira for Britain, leaving their possessions behind.

Ernest’s and Dora’s 5 children inspired Swallows and Amazons by Ransome, who named most of the Walker children after the Altounyans. One of their children, Roger (who is Barbara’s father), was a doctor too, whose pioneering invention of spin-inhaler had improved the lives of asthma-sufferers all over the world.

Read about Ernest Altounyan on Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Online, Royal College of Surgeons