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Mountain in Iran Named for American Nurse


Helen Bakhtiar served in Bakhtiari region as nurse in 1950s

Davar Ardalan, author of My Name is Iran
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(photo by Ali Moayedian, 2007)

Washington - Davar Iran Ardalan remembers the stories told by her remarkable grandmother, Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar talked of her adventures as a wife, mother and hospital nurse in Tehran in the 1930s, and as a public health nurse with the landmark "Point Four" U.S. technical assistance program in the 1950s, where she worked in the Bakhtiari region of southeastern Iran.

In her memoir of growing up in two countries, My Name Is Iran, Ardalan later wrote that her grandmother "would often speak of the sheer beauty of 'the daisies, bluebells and yellow buttercups, the wild roses and blossoms ... the clamor of the bells rhyming and chiming.' ... For hours she watched the tribal women weaving their legendary Bakhtiari carpets."

Last year, Ardalan and other family members in the United States learned that a mountain and surrounding forest near the city of Isfahan has been named Mount Helen in honor of Helen Bakhtiar for her pioneering work in public health with the Point Four program in some of Iran's most isolated villages.

"Imagine finding out that a nomadic tribe has named a mountain after your grandmother," said Davar Iran Ardalan in a 2008 commentary on the United States' National Public Radio. "It's quite a legacy for a woman born in Weiser, Idaho, at the beginning of the 20th century."


Helen Bakhtiar was no stranger to Iran when she traveled there with the Point Four program. In 1927, as a 22-year-old nursing instructor in New York City, she stunned her family by marrying an Iranian physician 30 years older than she. Her husband, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, grew up in the remote Bakhtiari tribal region, learned English as a adult, gained a scholarship to the United States - and was 54 years old when he graduated from medical school.

In 1932, Abol and Helen Bakhtiar moved to Tehran, where they opened one of the first private hospitals in the country. Helen worked as a nurse and anesthesiologist while raising a family of seven children. She returned to the United States on the eve of World War II. Although Helen and Abol divorced after the war, they remained close and agreed that all seven children should continue their education in the United States.


With a degree in public health and an undiminished love for Iran and Persian culture, Helen Bakhtiar responded eagerly when President Truman announced the Point Four initiative in his 1949 presidential inaugural address.

Truman set out four foreign-policy goals in his speech, wrote biographer David McCullough. "But it was his final proposal, his fourth point, that caught everyone by surprise, a 'bold new program' for making the benefits of American science and technology available to 'underdeveloped' countries."

Unlike the Marshall Plan for European recovery, the Point Four program emphasized "the distribution of knowledge rather than money," McCullough wrote. In Iran, one of the first Point Four nations, the program focused primarily in the areas of agriculture, water and sanitation, and public health.

Bakhtiar joined the program for Iran in 1950 as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service. In Tehran, the instructions to her and the other nurses were blunt: "You are to learn Persian. You are to drive a jeep and you are to start your program," according to Davar Ardalan.

Bakhtiar, already fluent in Persian, found the real challenge to be learning to drive a jeep on remote Iranian roads. As part of a mobile rural health unit, she traveled extensively throughout the Bakhtiari region where she immunized children against disease and trained local health workers, especially in maternal and child care.

The Point Four program in Iran grew rapidly, from a $1.3 million budget in 1951 to $73 million in 1956. With more than 300 American and 1,000 Iranian personnel by the mid-1950s, Point Four achieved tangible successes in such areas as medicine and agriculture, according to a 1989 history of U.S.-Iranian relations.

In her memoir, Davar Ardalan points to achievements in helping Iran eradicate malaria in most parts of the country by 1955, build a modern water system for Tehran, and design water and sanitation systems for rural villages.


The Truman Administration's Marshall Plan and Point Four initiative have since evolved into the comprehensive assistance programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other federal agencies, which encompass development assistance, humanitarian and debt relief, the Peace Corps, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and leadership in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

Despite the lack of official U.S.-Iranian relations, for example, the United States airlifted pre-positioned emergency supplies to assist the thousands of victims of the devastating Bam earthquake in December 2003. USAID also sent a Disaster Assistance Relief Team that assisted with search and rescue efforts, and deployed a mobile hospital unit with medical supplies.


After leaving the Point Four program, Helen Bakhtiar moved to Isfahan, where her ties to the region and the Bakhtiari people deepened. In her journal, she recalled joining their annual migration from winter to summer pastures - crossing steep mountain ranges and fording cold, swift-running rivers - as "one of the highlights of my life."

Helen Bakhtiar died in Tehran in 1973. At her request, she was buried, in a traditional Muslim ceremony, next to Abol Ghassem in the city of Tus.

In an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, Ardalan said, "When you hear that the Bakhtiari tribe have named a mountain after an American nurse, you realize that, against all odds, there's an opportunity for the two countries to learn more about each other as people."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

Related Book: Helen of Tus

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