Anusha Parthasarathy traces the pioneering efforts, over a century, of the King’s Institute of Preventive Medicine in eradicating tropical diseases

The vast campus of the King’s Institute of Preventive Medicine, all of its 56 acres, engulfs you in a way that villages often do. Buildings thrive under the shelter of trees while some others, broken and battered are invaded by foliage. Large banyans provide abundant shade and a comfortable silence permeates its surroundings. A cluster of smaller departments with sloping roofs are connected by sheltered passageways. At the centre, the towering red heritage building of the Director’s office is reminiscent of Lt. Col. W.G. King, its first director, after whom the institute was named when it began in 1899.

The arched entranceways and roomy verandahs lead up through a grand stairway to the office of Dr. P. Gunasekaran, the current Director. “The concept of prevention being better than cure was very prevalent then and the Government wanted an institute that would play a vital role for the whole of the Madras Presidency,” says Gunasekaran.

And so, W. G. King, who was the Sanitary Commissioner of the Presidency at that time began a vaccine depot to treat small pox on November 7, 1899. “This was their biggest challenge that time and the building that the depot began in is still within the campus,” he adds, pointing to an old, circular, hut-like establishment next to the main building. “In 1903, a Bacteriology Department was established and performed various diagnostic tests on clinical examples that were received from all over the Presidency.”

A serum section and a water analysis wing were also added around that time, though the latter was handed over to the State Public Health Department in 1959. During World War II, more functions came under the responsibility of the King’s Institute. The Institute’s first Indian Director, K.P. Menon was in charge between 1941-1942, followed by C.G. Pandit. The Department of Biological Control was established in 1947. This helped analyse the quality of vaccines manufactured by the Institute and to help the State Drug Controller.

In 1969, the Department of Virology, which was later designated as the National Polio Lab (1993) was started. During the 1970s, the institute played an important role in the eradication of small pox and was awarded the UNESCO Mandram award in 1970. “This department has been accredited by WHO from 1995 and is moving towards eradicating polio,” he adds.

The institute also offers diploma, undergraduate, post graduate courses and Ph.D. programmes for medical and non-medical students. “Our School of Laboratory Technology has been imparting training to technicians from 1960,” says Gunasekaran, “We now have about 360 staff working in 15 departments within the institute.”

King’s was recently presented an award by FICCI for its diagnostic services — testing 30,000 samples of swine flu. “We have state-of-the-art equipment here to diagnose 23 types of viruses and we do this free of cost. But given that, we now want to strengthen our bacteria lab and allow it to act as a reference centre.”

The State Government has recently sanctioned Rs. 9.4 crores to the Institute for projects such as tissue bank, immunodiagnostic activities and revival of vaccine production. “We had shifted from production to diagnostic and service-oriented activities some years ago but now, we will begin production again.”

The campus now has five heritage buildings, including the Director’s office and the vaccine depot. “Most of the buildings here are old,” smiles Gunasekaran, “The King’s Institute began as a place to treat small pox but has grown into a research and testing facility. It has evolved and yet remains the same in many ways.”