The story of Dr. Ayyathurai Mathuram, one of Tiruchi’s most notable medical practitioners
On the Puthur junction leading on to Pattabhiraman Road in Tiruchi stands a gilded statue, impervious to the chaotic traffic below. The likeness is that of Dr. Ayyathurai Mathuram, one of the city’s notable medical practitioners, and was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Madras, K.Kamaraj, in 1956.
Behind the statue stretches out a compound of residences and commercial buildings, broadly known by the name of the first structure there — Guru Medical Hall. And with it, the story of the Mathuram family that is woven into the city’s reputation as a regional healthcare hub, with generations of the clan practising both allopathic and Ayurvedic medicine here until today.
Walking us through the rich legacy is Dr. Bapu Isaac Mathuram, one of Dr. Ayyathurai’s grandsons, who stays in what is known as the ‘Centenary Building’, built in 1977 to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Dr. A.Mathuram.
A professor of biochemistry at the CSI College of Dental Sciences and Research, Madurai, Dr Bapu also finds himself to be a keeper of memories, particularly those related to his illustrious ancestors.
His residence is also unique for another reason — its two upper floors serve as the manufacturing unit of the popular Ayurvedic preparations patented by Dr. A. Mathuram — Guru Thailam (ointment) and Guru Pal Podi (toothpowder).
Family of physicians
As we sit listening to Dr. Bapu recounting the chronology of the Mathuram physicians down the ages in a room lined with a mix of antique and modern furniture and knick-knacks, the broad outlines of a different era begin to take shape.
“My great-grandfather Dr. Samuel Mathuram is the one who decreed ‘Mathuram’ (honey/nectar in Sanskrit) should be the family name, though we don’t know exactly why. He was a Christian missionary doctor who served in many places throughout southern India for 46 years,” says Dr. Bapu.
Dr. Samuel was also the recipient of the formulae of his grandfather Nallamuthu Visuvasam’s natural remedies. Visuvasam was a well-respected physician from Tirunelveli who had formulated his medicines based on his interactions with Hindu ascetics in the early 19th century.
Dr Samuel’s son Ayyathurai was born in 1877 in Irungalur near Tiruchi. After the death of his first wife (after the birth of another son), Dr. Samuel moved to Nazareth near Tuticorin.
Ayyathurai was a precocious child, according to family accounts, and says Dr. Bapu, “even though he had already done an LMP (Licentiate Medical Practitioner) degree, considered a high qualification at that time, he decided to switch over to proper medical studies after getting inspired by the words on the page of a pulpit Bible while praying in church, which he felt urged him to go and minister the sick and serve the poor.”
He completed his studies at the Prince of Wales Medical School, Thanjavur, in 1900 and served in the government for five years before deciding to strike out on his own. Starting his practice in Virudhunagar, he moved to Viswanaikanpettai (near modern-day Tennur), in Tiruchi, choosing two adjacent houses to function as his clinic and residence.
Unlike other doctors of the period who were rejecting native cures in favour of Western medicine, Dr. A. Mathuram promoted Ayurvedic therapies. The most common ailments at the time were anaemia and malaria, cures for which people thronged the doctor’s clinic.
“Dr. A. Mathuram wanted to give people medicines that were reasonably priced, and used natural ingredients,” says Dr. Bapu. “My grandmother Jane used to grind them in the right proportion,” he adds.
“Inspired by a song with the words ‘Guru Marunthu, Maru Marunthu’ playing next door, Dr. A. Mathuram decided to name his company Guru Medicine,” he adds, with Guru indicative of Jesus Christ, whose image is also part of the product logo.
By the early 1900s, Dr. A.Mathuram’s formulations were selling well in Burma, Malaya and Sri Lanka. Among the more famous of these were Guru Santhana Sornam (to treat female infertility), Guru Ague Mixture (malaria), Guru Soga Sanjeevni (anaemia), Guru Vallara Legyam (skin disease), Malabar Koonthal Thailam (for hair growth) and Manorama Hair Oil (anti-dandruff).
The British honours of ‘Rao Bahadur’ and ‘Rao Sahib’ were conferred on Dr. A. Mathuram as his medical career flourished.
Always of a spiritual bent of mind, Dr. Ayyathurai gifted away large tracts of his land holdings in Tiruchi for public use. Some of the family’s properties such as the Ettupattai Bungalow (octagonal in shape) and Guru Medical Hall, have become popular place markers in the Puthur locality.
Seven children were born to the Mathurams, four sons and three daughters, most of who went on to serve as medical practitioners.
“My grandfather had a penchant for naming his children after famous world personalities,” reveals Dr. Bapu with a smile when he lists the cosmopolitan names of Dr. A. Mathuram’s sons.
The eldest, born in 1904, was Dr. Edward Paul, who joined his father in the Guru Medicine enterprise in 1930 after completing his medical studies. Later on, he was also active in politics, serving as Member of Legislative Assembly and Member of Parliament.
The second son, Dr. Naoroji Mathuram also joined the family firm in 1935. The third, Mr. George Rothschild, served in the army and upon retirement, joined the judicial service and went on to become District Judge.
Dr. Bannerji Mathuram (Dr. Bapu’s father), completed his medical studies in Madras Medical College and joined the government service. He retired as District Medical Officer (DMO) after serving in Cuddalore (formerly South Arcot) and Salem in the late 1960s.
Subsequent generations have shown a similar affinity for medicine, with Dr. Samuel Ayyathurai, Dr. Bapu, Dr. Ann Duraisami and Dr. Joseph Mathuram all distinguishing themselves in their chosen field, followed by younger family members today.
Among the vestiges of Dr. A. Mathuram’s estate is a 10,000 square feet bungalow in the Guru Medical Hall compound that retains some of the original furnishings, including four sturdy Burmese teak pillars that support the central hall, and ceramic tiles embedded into the walls, made of local red soil. Built in the 1920s, the high-ceilinged bungalow served as a district courthouse for a while, and also had an emergency underground bunker that has since been closed. “My grandfather also maintained a zoo here, the only one in Tiruchi,” Dr.Bapu says with some pride.
The much-storied life of the medical pioneer came to an end in 1944.
At the bungalow, as Dr. Bapu’s wife Joy coaxes a tune out of the Steinbeck piano that originally belonged to Dr. A. Mathuram, a small gathering of family members breaks into a hymn of thanksgiving. It adds a sweet note to round off the story of the Mathurams.