Mossadegh — A Medical Biography

“Physically I am not too bad, but my spirits are very low and I am deeply depressed; in view of the prevailing moral degeneracy I do not know how this country is going to fare.” — Dr. Mossadegh, in a letter to Ali Shayegan four months before the 1953 coup

Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
The Mossadegh Project | November 12, 2005                      

Mossadegh — A Medical Biography | Ebrahim Norouzi, MD

The health of Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh played a significant part in his life and political career. At the height of his power as Prime Minister of Iran, Mossadegh was elderly, frail, and beleaguered by medical problems. Despite these challenges, he worked tirelessly for the cause of independence and democracy for his country. In this article we will review the available medical information to gain a greater understanding of the effect this ill health had on his life and work.

The Early Years

Information about the general health of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh for the first two decades of his life is scarce at best. Although he reportedly suffered from frequent colds as a youth, the earliest reference to any significant health problem appears about the time he was studying in Paris in the academic year of 1909, when he was 27 years old and married. In the book Mossadegh, A Political Biography, author Farhad Diba explains:

“This period of study proved very difficult, owing to being in a totally new environment as well as the demands of studying in a foreign language. During the second year he fell ill with stomach ulcers and was forced to lie down on the benches during lectures.”

No individual bore closer witness to the health issues effecting Mossadegh than Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh, who would come to serve as personal physician to his father. In an interview conducted in Farsi for the Iranian Oral History Project of Harvard University [Paris, July 1984], Gholam Hossein makes perhaps the only reference available to another serious medical condition afflicting his father. Gholam-Hossein states that during this period of studying in Paris, his father worked so hard that he developed tuberculosis, damaging one of his lungs and forcing him to return to Iran under the care of a nurse. In his book, In the Company of My Father, Mossadegh, Gholam-Hossein says that while his father was a student in France he was anemic, had stomach ulcers [duodenal], and on several occasions suffered severe hemorrhages; conditions which would remain with him throughout his life. Gholam-Hossein adds that his father’s blood pressure was always low, and at one point because of hard work, stress and the difficulties of political life and aging he literally developed “heart failure”.

Mohammad Mossadegh wrote in his memoirs that because of a nervous condition, weakness and lack of sleep, he saw two general practitioners while in Paris; a neurologist and Professor Heim who ordered total bed rest. Mossadegh, however did not follow the advice and continued to attend his classes, even if he had to lie down from exhaustion during the lectures. His condition worsened to a point that he completely lost his ability to move around. This forced him to rest for a few months, including two months in a hospital outside of Paris, before deciding to return to Iran in the summer of 1911. Diba writes “He was so ill during his return trip that he was not able to walk even the few steps from the Austrian to the Russian train (he was carried in a wheelbarrow), nor from the boat in Enzelli [a port city in Caspian sea] to carriage (when a porter carried him piggy-back).”

These accounts point to Mossadegh’s precarious state of health at his relatively young age. There are several plausible, though unconfirmed, explanations for his condition, such as the possibility of active tuberculosis, profound anemia secondary to bleeding ulcers, anxiety, exhaustion from intense study, inadequate rest and lack of proper nutrition.

Back in Iran, with rest and care of his family and a nurse, his condition improved. Mossadegh wrote in his memoirs that when he arrived at home in Tehran, he began restricting his fluid intake as recommended by Professor Heim. Amid Tehran’s hot late spring weather, he experienced dryness of the mouth so severe that he was eventually unable to talk. Finally, he gave in to his mother’s admonishment to take better care of himself. Mossadegh obliged and after eating two cantaloupes that his mother brought him, he felt much better and was able to speak once again.

Several months later, Mossadegh left Iran with his family for Europe and settled in Neuchatel, Switzerland. He attended the school of law and received a doctorate degree in 1914, a first for an Iranian.

The next medical crisis happened in 1917 when he was diagnosed with appendicitis and traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan for an operation. Homa Katouzian speculates that “...given the trouble his nerves had caused and were to cause him in the future, the diagnosis may have been wrong, and he could have been suffering from acute stomach cramps instead.” Though such a theory has some merit, Mossadegh most likely did have appendicitis since his condition improved following the surgery. In his memoirs Mossadegh wrote that after the surgery his doctor, “a famous surgeon,” showed him his removed appendix in alcohol and told him that any more delay would have resulted in a poor outcome!

In 1921, Mossadegh was appointed as Minister of Finance, and later that year became Governor of the State of Azerbaijan. While in Tabriz he became ill again, which he attributed to bad weather and the pressures of the job. Katouzian states that “...the recurrence of his nervous disease — which he himself put down to the bad climate as well as his frailty and frustration — this time manifested itself by bleeding through mouth. He had to move to a house in the country and talk as little as possible for a whole month”. Adding to his stress during his stay in Tabriz, Mossadegh became the target of an assassination plot. Finally he resigned from his job and returned to Tehran.

Mossadegh found the political climate under the reign of Reza Shah unbearable- so much so that he actually feared for his life. In 1928, he voluntarily withdrew from social and political activism and retreated to his village of Ahmadabad, located about 100 kilometers outside of Tehran. During this time period, occupied mainly by reading and farming, Mossadegh began to bleed from the mouth. The bleeding stopped when Professor Shams “burned” [cauterized] the site of the bleeding, reportedly in his throat. Later on the bleeding from his mouth reoccurred, but this time the source could not be determined. Mossadegh traveled to Berlin in 1936 and consulted a specialist and an internist about the problem of “expectorating blood.” These physicians, Professors Eichen and Bergmann, did not make any specific recommendation. By this time the bleeding from his mouth had stopped, but according to Mossadegh himself it “changed direction” and he noticed blood in his urine. Following the toppling of his government in 1953, during his three year imprisonment he also experienced alot of blood in his urine, which alarmed him greatly.

Mossadegh’s problem with recurrent bleeding from the mouth and “expectorating blood” and later presence of blood in his urine was probably caused by infection. Other causes, such as blood disorder, active tuberculosis and other undiagnosed ailments also cannot be ruled out.

An Unbearable Physical & Psychological Experience

Other than the episode of bleeding from the mouth, Mossadegh had a relatively uneventful life in self-imposed exile in Ahmadabad. His health was being overseen by Gholam-Hossein, who would examine him and check his blood pressure at least once a week.
Reza Shah The tranquility was shattered on July 26, 1940, when members of Reza Shah’s police arrived to arrest Mossadegh with no prior warning. His house was searched and reportedly ransacked. No incriminating evidence against him was found, but nonetheless, he was taken to the central prison in Tehran and incarcerated.

Interrogated but never informed of the charges against him, Mossadegh was greatly disturbed by this turn of events. When he learned that he was to be taken to the infamous prison citadel in Birjand (a city in northeast Iran) he was distressed and feared for his life. Well aware of the fate of many others who dared to oppose Reza Shah’s arbitrary rule, he declared that he would no longer cooperate with the authorities of “this lawless state.” He physically resisted his transfer to Birjand, but his captors took him by brute force as he grasped the wheels of the car that awaited him. Diba writes, “On the way, he attempted to commit suicide by swallowing the remainder of the contents of Dilodendril [a sedative / tranquilizer], but the quantity was insufficient to cause death." Mossadegh however became very ill as a result, vomited during the trip, and according to Katouzian he was “ [a] coma when they pulled up at a local clinic in Shahrud and saved his life.”

Prison documents state that the prisoner, Mohammad Mossadegh, suffered from bimary-e gash (fainting spells, fits or hysteria). Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh wrotes that the very small prison cell, bad food, lack of hygiene and preexisting poor health made his father severely ill and depressed. Believing that he would soon be killed, Mossadegh decided to abstain from drinking and eating. This was to be the first of five hunger strikes during his life. The Chief of police, fearing the demise of this important prisoner on his watch, came to the prison and swore on the Koran that they had no intention of putting him to death, and convinced him to resume eating by offering him milk and biscuits. Mossadegh broke his fast on the third day.

holding daughter Khadijeh The harshest blow to Mossadegh resulting from his imprisonment was the effect it had on his teenage daughter, Khadijeh. The witnessing of her father’s forced transfer to Birjand prison traumatized her for life — she spent the remainder of it in psychiatric hospitals. Mossadegh later commented that this tragedy was the cruelest punishment that could have ever been inflicted on him.

Meanwhile, Ernest Perron, a Swiss national and a very close friend of the crown prince, had been recently admitted to Najmieh Hospital with diagnosis of kidney stones. Najmieh was a charity hospital founded by and named after Mossadegh’s mother, and directed by her grandson, Gholam-Hossein. Following a successful operation by Professor Yahya Adl and Gholam-Hossein, Perron recovered and offered to return the favor in some way. Gholam-Hossein asked for help in the release of his father from prison, and Perron in turn requested it from Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, leading to the release of Mossadegh in November 1940. Reza Shah ordered that Mossadegh be transferred to Ahmadabad; “to live there, until he dies there”.

Gholam-Hossein recounts that when he first saw his father after this ordeal he found him in a pitiful condition— feverish, lice infected and paralyzed from the waist down. It took about two months for Mossadegh to regain his strength and return to his usual condition.

Mossadegh remained in Ahmadabad until the conclusion of his house arrest in September 1941, when he was informed that he was free to leave his residence. This was part of a general amnesty granted after Reza Shah’s forced abdication by the British and ascension of his son to the throne.

Mossadegh left the compound and returned to his political activities. He was elected to represent Tehran to the 14th Majlis (Parliament) in 1944, receiving the highest votes of all other elected deputies from Tehran.

Robust Spirit, Fragile Body

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh In April 1951 Mohammad Mossadegh agreed to assume the position of Prime Minister, and within only a week succeeded in finalizing the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. At the time he accepted the premiership, he was extremely weak and very fatigued. When Gholam-Hossein questioned his father about the wisdom of accepting such a heavy responsibility in view of his frail condition, Mossadegh responded: “I’ve no choice, otherwise the nation’s struggle and sacrifice for Nationalization of Oil would go to waste.”

Mossadegh examined by son, Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh Gholam-Hossein assumed the role of his father’s physician from the time he received his diploma in 1934 [Persian calendar 1313], and saw his father at 6:00 a.m. daily during his premiership. He would check his pulse and blood pressure, and often gave him a B vitamin (Becozyme) injection for energy. In order to conserve energy, he advised his father to work from bed as much as he could. In this manner, Mossadegh worked an average of 14 hours daily during his entire 28 months as Prime Minister. He adds that his father never had a good night sleep and every night he would take 2 or 3 tranquilizers.

Mossadegh in NY hospital In October 1951, Premier Mohammad Mossadegh traveled to New York to personally defend Iran’s right to nationalize its oil industry before the UN Security Council. When he arrived at the airport he was taken directly to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. He underwent a medical check-up and then moved to a hotel. Farhad Diba writes, “..he stayed for a time in New York Hospital, not so much because he was ill but because he needed time to prepare the Iranian defense after consultations with his advisers.”

At the UN Security Council, Mossadegh gave a dramatic and successful presentation and then headed for Washington, DC where he met with President Harry S. Truman. Stephen Kinzer surmises in his book All The Shah’s Men that Truman “...had arranged for Mossadegh to be installed at Walter Reed Hospital, where he could rest and be given a full battery of tests. To a man who had many ailments and believed he had many more, who felt comfortable in bed and never declined medical attention, this was an irresistible offer.” Mossadegh stayed at Walter Reed Hospital for about a week.

Mossadegh in NY hospital Gholam-Hossein understood that the medical evaluation conducted by Dr. Wallace H. Graham found his father to be weak, but did not uncover any abnormality. Dr. Graham was not only Truman’s physician, he was a close family friend who also treated members of the White House staff and Secret Service during Truman’s presidency. In a letter to his cousin Ethel Noland on December 12, 1951, President Harry Truman mentioned Mossadegh’s condition:

“Yes Dr. Graham took care of old man Mossadegh and that sent him home in a good humor. But it hasn’t helped the Iranian Oil Situation much.”

Mossadegh with George McGhee Truman’s assistant Secretary of State George McGhee first met Mossadegh in New York Hospital, and writes in his book Envoy to the Middle World that while in Walter Reed Hospital, Mossadegh had a thorough examination and “Actually the doctors at Walter Reed could find nothing in particular wrong with Mossadeq apart from the natural debilities of his age.”

McGhee later claimed in his contribution to the compilation Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil that Mossadegh suffered from a disc condition in his back and frequently needed to lie down in bed, though this condition is not noted by any other sources. However, in his memoirs, Mossadegh makes a reference to “leg pain” for which he made a trip from Tehran in 1921 to a “sulphuric hot spring.” If indeed Mossadegh had a disc problem one can hypothesize that leg pain was possibly related to this condition.

There is a curious political dimension to Iranian leader Mossadegh being examined by physicians attached to the American government or admitted to a military institution such as Walter Reed Hospital. He was reportedly found to be generally healthy by two American hospitals and separately by two American physicians!

Mossadegh in USA The most common ailment attributed to Mossadegh is the habit of frequent public fainting, although there are apparently no photographs or filmreels showing the scene of one of these fainting episodes. Even his long time close friend, compatriot, and later personal attorney, Mr. Nosratollah Amini, who saw him frequently, had not been witness to any episode of fainting. Yet Mr. Amini tells us that as Prime Minister, Mossadegh would sometimes have coughing spells and bring up blood. [personal communication, August 2005]. Mossadegh himself explained it as the result of chest injury he sustained when he fell from a horse in Lavasan, a city in the outskirts of Tehran, years earlier. These episodes of coughing up blood, however, give more credence to the possibility of conditions other than tuberculosis.

Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh was asked about this subject in his 1984 interview for the Iranian Oral History Project. In response to a question about the rumors that his father would faint at will for dramatic effect, he said that his father did indeed have a tendency to faint because of severe weakness and very low blood pressure. This would cause him to feel dizzy and quickly black out. In Homa Katouzian’s contribution to the academic anthology Mohammad Mossadeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, he writes of Mossadegh, “Throughout his life he suffered from a chronic nervous disease that in moments of high tension, led to his getting a lump in his throat and/or fainting”.

Medically speaking, fainting (Syncope) is defined as a brief loss of consciousness. This condition is most commonly caused by limitation in blood flow to the brain usually due to decreased heart output. In Mossadegh’s case, one can speculate that his fainting spells were due to a condition called Vasovagal Syncope. This form of fainting is usually caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure, precipitated by emotional or physical stimuli such as pain, fright or the sight of blood.

Mossadegh Gholam-Hossein worried that his father would faint in front of reporters in New York who were anxious to snap his picture if that happened. He was particularly concerned on the day Mossadegh appeared at the UN, but “luckily he did not faint that day.”

One can deduce that fainting did occur, but the frequency of such episodes appears to have been greatly exaggerated. One known account of Mossadegh fainting was recorded by Mossadegh himself in his memoirs, and described in further detail by his son to the Iranian Oral History Project:

Shah with Mossadegh In July 1952 [26 Tir 1331], Mossadegh had a meeting with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in the royal palace that lasted three hours. In this meeting Mossadegh requested that he be trusted with the control of the armed forces as Minister of Defense. The Shah refused to grant this request, and Mossadegh immediately offered his resignation as Prime Minister and then began exiting the room. The Shah moved swiftly and blocked the door to prevent his departure. Mossadegh recalled that he suddenly began to feel sick. According to his son’s account, the next thing Mossadegh remembered was finding himself on the ground as the Shah knelt next to him. His head was being cradled on the knee of Gen. Morteza Yazdanpanah, who had entered the room after hearing the commotion inside. As the General began pouring sugar water down his throat, Mossadegh recalled hearing the Shah saying, “Don’t die, don’t die. If you die it will cause me lots of problems. I count on you. Whatever I have is from you!”

The Final Years

On August 19, 1953 [28 Mordad 1332], Mossadegh’s government fell victim to a coordinated covert operation by US and British governments and domestic enemies, code named TP-AJAX by the CIA. Mossadegh was arrested and hauled into court to be subjected to a grueling six week long military trial. During the subsequent appeal, the public was forbidden from witnessing the proceedings, which were also not allowed to be published in the newspapers. To protest these actions Mossadegh went on a hunger strike, a form of non-violent dissent he had practiced in past dealings with arbitrary rules.

Mossadegh was convicted as a traitor and sentenced, at age 71, to three years of solitary imprisonment. Upon completion of this prison time, he was taken to Ahmadabad and was kept under house arrest until his death. Mossadegh’s company would be confined to a small circle of people for the remainder of his life — only close relatives and his personal lawyer Nosratollah Amini were permitted to visit him at his Ahmadabad estate.

Mossadegh In Gholam-Hossein’s memoir, he explains that during these years his father ate simply and in small portions. For breakfast, he would have bread and cheese with sweetened hot water; and for lunch he would eat rice and khoresh [various Persian stews], ending his day with a light dinner. He liked fruit, particularly the Persian melon kharbozeh.

Gholam-Hossein recalls that in this period his father was generally well and his mind was clear. His main complaint was living without companionship, which worsened when he lost his wife in 1965 (1344 Persian). In the winter of 1966-67 (1344) he developed pneumonia but recovered and did well until the following winter.

Gholam-Hossein describes that one Friday in the month of Aban 1345 (November-October 1966), he noticed redness and swelling on his father’s left cheek. When he inquired about it, Mossadegh informed him about the presence of a painful blister on the roof of his mouth, for which he had applied Mercurchrome on his cheek to relieve the pain. Shortly afterward, Nosratollah Amini brought in his close friend Dr. Ismail Yazdi, an oral surgeon, to examine Mossadegh.

Dr. Yazdi recommended that Mossadegh be admitted to a hospital in Tehran for a more thorough evaluation. To secure permission from the Shah for this transfer, Gholam-Hossein asked professor Yahya Adl to intervene. A couple of days later the Shah granted this permission and Mossadegh was brought to Tehran and admitted to Najmieh hospital. He underwent a biopsy and was diagnosed with cancer in the roof of the mouth. While in the hospital no one was allowed to visit him, and he refused his children’s offers to fly him to Europe for treatment or to bring physicians from abroad.

Mossadegh Mossadegh was discharged from the hospital and began receiving cobalt radiation therapy in Mehr hospital while staying in his son’s home, still under house arrest. Diba writes that cobalt therapy was “administered by Dr. Ahmad Farhad, one-time chancellor of Tehran University, and Dr. Sadr”. According to Gholam-Hossein, his father developed enlarged lymph glands in his neck which caused such tremendous pain that it caused him to scream in agony. He took a lot of analgesics which aggravated his stomach ulcer. Due to mouth and throat pain, Mossadegh lost his ability to eat and began vomiting blood and bled through his bowels.

Mossadegh transferred back to Najmieh Hospital and was transfused. His condition deteriorated rather rapidly and a few days later, he fell into a coma.

In the dawn of 14 Esfand 1346 (March 5, 1967) Mossadegh died at age 84. The Shah refused to allow his burial in the cemetery of martyrs as he had wished in his will and Mossadegh was buried in the ground of the dining room of his house in Ahmadabad.


Related links:

Mossadegh — A Character Study

Hossein Fatemi Biography, Iran’s Youngest Foreign Minister

Mossadegh. . .My Childhood Memory by Dr. Ebrahim Norouzi

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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