The Medics of Madras
In India, National Doctor’s Day is observed on July 1 in memory of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a physician, a freedom fighter, an educationist, and even a politician who was the second Chief Minister of West Bengal. This is as fitting an occasion as any to look back at the medical fraternity of Madras, the polymaths whose interests and beliefs shaped the city – a long list of luminaries that includes Dr Ronald Ross, the second person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his research on malaria that helped mankind’s battle to combat the once-dreaded disease
Doctor of reform
When Muthulakshmi Reddy passed out of the Madras Medical College, she was the lone native woman doctor in the entire Presidency to achieve this distinction. She had a roaring practice, with royalty, the elite and the common woman alike thronging her clinic. But her heart was elsewhere. Inspired to devote her energy to the emancipation of women, Muthulakshmi gave up her medical practice to enter the Madras Legislative Council. Her arguments against an intra-party coalition of old-timers who resisted change helped liberate the women of Madras Presidency from age-old chains. She piloted the Bills to end polygamy and the immoral trafficking of women and also recommended that the minimum age of marriage for girls should be at least 21. What she considered her greatest defeat was the Devadasi Bill, something that was as progressive as it was personal. Born to a devadasi mother, she fought against the custom of endowing girls to god. But the traditionalists cutting across party lines wrecked her move to ban the system. She started the Avvai Home for Destitute Girls and the Adyar Cancer Institute.
The flying doctor
Dr Sarukkai Rangachari was a medical practitioner, surgeon and gynaecologist. After a few years of government service, during which he rose to be the Deputy Superintendent of the Egmore Women and Children Hospital, he set up a private practice at Kensington Nursing Home on Poonamallee. He had a roaring practice right across the presidency. The phenomenal growth in his practice could be seen by the vehicles he used. Starting with a cycle and then graduating to a motorcycle, he soon became a proud owner of a Rolls Royce Phantom. Finally, to the astonishment of the entire Presidency, he bought a Puss Moth plane. He would fly across half the country and land in rugged airstrips to treat his patients, earning the monicker the flying doctor. When he died prematurely, a statue of him was commissioned outside the general hospital which the British governor Erskine unveiled.
The zoo doctor
Like his cousin Alexander Hume who founded the Congress, David Balfour had a deep interest in seeing the native Indians progress as a society. He set up the Madras museum, and also set up a zoo within its premises borrowing animals from the nawab’s menagerie. He did the first statistical studies on a zoological park linking the quality of displays and the visitor count. Edward Balfour, a visionary with a breath-taking foresight, headed the Medical Service in Madras as the surgeon general. Balfour was appalled after hearing the horrifying stories of women enduring pain from diseases under the notion that they would rather die than be examined by a male doctor. As a result, the maternal and infant mortality rate during childbirth was abysmal. In a memorandum to the Madras government, he advised the authorities to admit women to the medical college. Despite the initial rejection, the recommendation was eventually accepted, allowing female students to join the Madras Medical College. Thanks to him, Madras was ahead of most medical colleges in the world in admitting girls to the medical education stream.
The anti-caste fighter
Iyothee Thass was born Kathavarayan in the Thousand Lights area of Madras. He picked up and soon possessed a deep knowledge of Siddha medicine. His grandfather worked for an Englishman in Ooty, an association that the boy benefited hugely. But since he was born into the Panchama (the so-called ‘untouchable’) section of the Hindu society, he was discriminated against. Refusing to take it without a fight, he founded the Panchama Mahajana Sabha in 1891. During the 1891 census, he urged the members of Scheduled Castes to register themselves as ‘Casteless Dravidians’, instead of identifying themselves as Hindus. Iyothee Thass met Colonel HS Olcott along with his followers and expressed a sincere desire to convert to Buddhism (a strategy followed by BR Ambedkar later). Thass established the Sakya Buddhist Society in Madras, with branches all over South India. He launched a weekly Tamil newspaper called Oru Paisa Tamizhan, which became the main instrument of his criticism of caste power. Iyothee Thass remains the first recognised anti-caste leader of the Madras Presidency. He was also the first notable Scheduled Caste leader to embrace Buddhism.
A dropout medical student
If Bankim Chandra was the first to write an Indian novel in English (Rajmohan’s wife), it was Krupabai Satthianadhan, a dropout medical student, who became the first Indian woman novelist in English. Born in Ahmednagar, she was admitted to the Madras Medical College in 1878. Her academic performance was brilliant from the start, but she may have been contracted tuberculosis from a patient and dropped out. Not willing to leave Madras, she took a boat across Cooum river and became a boarder at the Zion church in Chinthatripet. In 1881, the pastor’s son Samuel and Krupabai got married. Soon, a bored Krupa found her writing skills and started off with articles in leading periodicals under the byline ‘An Indian Lady’. Her first novel, ‘Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life’, was serialised in the prestigious Madras Christian College Magazine. The book was presented to Queen Victoria who, upon reading it, was very impressed. In tribute to the writer who broke the glass ceiling of social tradition, both Madras Medical College and Madras University instituted medals in her name.
The Dravidian doctor
The disproportionate representation of Brahmins in government jobs caused a lot of heartburn in the late 19th century when the politics in Madras Presidency was thriving on the communal division between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. It was very common to see ‘Brahmins Only’ signs at the door of Triplicane restaurants (commonly called Brahmanal hotels). To help non-Brahmin students obtain boarding and lodging when they migrated to Triplicane, Dr C Natesa Mudaliar opened the Dravidar Hostel on Akbar Sahib Street in 1914. Besides providing shelter to the boys, Natesan also conducted lectures and debates for them to develop general knowledge and invited many experts to speak at the hostel. The hostel soon became a centre of political activity, urging all communities to unite under one umbrella to fight Brahmin dominance. Natesan united all factions of the non-Brahmins to form the South Indian Liberal Foundation (which is more popularly known by its informal name, Justice Party). Dr Natesan is remembered today with a park in T Nagar.
The first female doctor
As was the case in the rest of the work, most, if not all, doctors were men in colonial Madras of the 1800s.Most women shied away from describing their ailments to a male physician. Mary Scharlieb had a deep scar within that would direct her throughout her life. Her mother had died 10 days after her birth, perhaps due to insufficient medical attention. Mary was editing a law journal for her husband in Madras when medical admissions were opened up for women at Balfour’s insistence. She was 30 but that didn’t stop her. Though girls faced stiff resistance within the college, with some professors refusing to teach women, she got her licentiate in 1878 and set sail to England with her children to get a degree in medicine from the London School of Medicine. Armed with British medical instruction, Scharlieb returned to India in 1883 and established a hospital in Madras ‘for high caste and Gosha women’. It was called the Royal Victoria Hospital, which is now Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital.
The silk doctor
Dr James Anderson became an East India Company naval surgeon in 1759 and eventually held the position of physician-general, thus heading the medical fraternity in Madras. However, he was deeply interested in horticulture and the breeding of silkworms. Madras would have been the silk capital of India if only Dr James Anderson’s 19th Century sericulture try-outs in Nungambakkam triumphed. The physician planted Mulberry trees at his home, Pycrofts Garden, on over 111 acres. He brought in silkworm eggs from Bengal and waited for them to hatch on trays of leaves. Meanwhile, Anderson had the ingenuity to develop his own reeling machine by just looking at a brochure from Europe and brought in an experienced reeler from Bengal. He could generate small amounts of reeled silk and even sent samples to George Washington, the first President of the United States. But sustained production eluded him and the East India Company abandoned its sericulture investments. But 50 years hence, it was the springboard for the silk industry to relaunch itself in different areas of the Presidency.
The first minister of health
Hailing from an orthodox Brahmin family in Srirangam, TSS Rajan who studied medicine at the Royapuram medical school received frowns as his profession involved touching the dead. A scholarship offered by the Burmese government, during which he would serve as a doctor there on completion of the course in lieu of fees waiver and free books, enabled the poor boy to complete his LMP. When he went to England for higher studies, he was excommunicated from his caste. He would be impressed by Gandhi much before the latter became the ‘Mahatma’. (Not knowing who he was, Rajan would ask Gandhi to wash vessels in an Indian get-together, an instruction that Gandhi obeyed.) Rajan would become the health minister in Rajaji’s 1937 cabinet and upgrade his alma mater to a college and christen it Stanley Medical College. Dr Rajan suspended his lucrative practice to devote all his time to work for Congress and was a regular translator for the Mahatma during his Madras visits. The Vedaranyam salt march would commence from his residence in Tiruchy.
Vice-Chancellor of Madras varsity
A set of twins were in the Madras news almost for half a century. Sir Arcot Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar was the younger twin brother of Sir AR Mudaliar, a Justice Party leader who even rose to be the Dewan of Mysore. The twins pursued their education from Madras Christian College, and Lakshmana opted to study medicine. AL Mudaliar was one of the first male doctors specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, and the textbook he authored is still considered an authoritative work. He was also the deputy leader of the Indian delegation to the First World Health Assembly in Geneva in 1948. When Lakshmana became the first Indian principal of the Madras Medical College, it spurred his interest in education management. His association with the University of Madras lasted over 45 years, of which he was Vice-Chancellor for 27 years.
Vaidya Ratna Srinivasa Murthy
The Indian systems of medicine were facing extinction because of the onslaught of the western school. To save the knowledge from being erased, some doctors specialising in native medicine started institutions to train doctors as well as prepare medicines. Among them was Dr Sreenivasa Murthy, a western medicine practitioner and an ex-serviceman. Next to Chetpet Lake was Hyde Park, the palace of the Panagal Raja. His allopathic physician Sreenivasa Murthy convinced the raja, who was also the Chief Minister of the Presidency, to start a college of Indian medical systems. The raja readily agreed and donated his palace as well. This later became the Kilpauk Medical College, with the Indian Medical Systems College moving to Anna Nagar. Dr Sreenivasa Murthy also started the Indian Medicine Practitioners’ Cooperative Pharmacy and Stores Ltd (Impcops). Impcops is engaged in the manufacturing preparations of centuries-old, time-proven traditional medicines in its reasonably modernised plants. Srinivasa Murthy was given the title of Vaidya Ratna, and his statues were installed within Kilpauk Medical College and another in Impcops Tiruvanmiyur.
Much of Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts in those crucial days in America are today preserved in archives of his letters to Dr Nanjunda Rao of Mylapore, who was one of his first disciples. Rao became a prosperous doctor despite offering free diagnosis to the destitute and deserving. Opening up his space, Sasi Vilas, the now-demolished red, gothic-style building, as a meeting point for many like-minded individuals to meet, also led to interesting events. The doctor encouraged visitors. Jiddu Krishnamurthy most possibly stayed here when his father was running a litigation on his possession with the mighty Annie Besant. Poetess Sarojini Devi Naidu, the ‘Nightingale of India’, got married here. Bipin Chandra Pal and Bal Gangadhar Tilak stayed here. A very acknowledged version is poet Bharathi escaping by boat to Pondicherry exile on the newly built Buckingham canal after being lodged in Dr Rao’s house overnight.