The now defunct smallpox hospital was a dire need of the 19 century

History shows that the Malabar and Calicut constantly waged a battle against smallpox and leprosy. A building that reflects the concerted effort at tackling these illnesses now stands futile, made redundant by time. With smallpox almost unheard of now, what is left of the smallpox hospital at Vellayil, built about 150 years ago, is a worn-out, identity-less structure.

The property by the beach was earmarked for two pressing issues, smallpox and leprosy, after an outbreak of the former in the 1850s. The idea of a hospital specifically for these diseases began small, but grew to be a fairly expensive project of the time.

Archival documents from 1858 record the beginnings of the centre. A century and a half old, the letters are still robust and preserve the flourishes that characterised the handwriting of yore.

In May 1858, Dr Cleveland, the civil surgeon of the Malabar, writes to the Acting Collector. While he recommends a separate “building in the dispensary compound” to tackle the ‘lunatics’, he suggests separate hospitals for leprosy and smallpox. He writes, “Such pitiable objects of lepra throng the thoroughfares of this populous town…nowhere throughout the Presidency would a Leper Hospital seem more required and its benefits be more widely felt.”

Cleveland also mentions the havoc created by smallpox. “Constant outbreak of smallpox is a subject embodied in every report of the local medical officer… there is no building of any kind for the reception of such case.” He then ventures “to suggest the erection of suitable public buildings on the beach, north of the town of Calicut, a site adjacent to the Fish Factory would I conceive be the most eligible and appropriate.”

In the same month, W. Robinson, the Acting Magistrate of Malabar, writes to T. Pycroft, the Chief Secretary to the Government, mentioning “the severe outbreak of smallpox and cholera in the year 1856 and during the past few months and recommends the immediate construction of smallpox wards with leper wards attached.” He seconds the site suggested by Dr Cleveland. He also furnishes data on the number of smallpox and cholera cases reported between May 1857 and April 1858. From the entire district, 7,879 deaths were reported of smallpox, while 3,257 died of cholera.

Robinson’s letter also paints a picture of the times, especially the plight of those affected. “Hundreds of these cases occurred among the poor and homeless. Even among the higher classes the terror of the disease is so great that instances of the most heartless desertion and neglect and of thrusting the infected out of home, constantly occur. Many cases prove fatal from want of care and persons in all stages of the disease and convalescence are met moving about in the bazaars… the number of unclaimed bodies justifies how thoroughly the horror of the disease destroys the most natural sympathies.”

A public hospital, according to Robinson, would serve as an asylum for the affected and abandoned patients. It “would enable the police to prevent the spread of infection by sending the homeless destitute there.”

The Chief Secretary agrees and directs that a plan and estimate be drawn for the building. In August 1858, E. Lawford, the officiating chief engineer, gives an estimate of Rs 3,440 for “constructing a smallpox and leper hospital at Calicut.”

Meanwhile, the plans for the hospitals keep changing. It grows from two wards to two hospitals “surrounded by a compound wall with a partition wall dividing them”, and then to two hospitals 400 yards apart. The budget in turn grows from Rs 3,440 to Rs 7,000 to Rs 14,600.

In 1859, P. Grant, the Magistrate of Malabar, writes to Pycroft about the pay for the employees. The civil surgeon, he says, has fixed Rs 5 for two “ward coolies”, one “totty” for Rs 4, a nurse for Rs 4 and a cook for Rs 7, making a grand total of Rs 25 as monthly salary for the smallpox hospital staff. Grant, “considering the nature of the job”, says he is “inclined to recommend a somewhat higher rate of pay …say one rupee each in addition to the proposed scale of pay.”

Though the initiative was intended to be propelled by public participation, the going proves tough. Grant writes, “I regret to add that very few have come forward to assist in the maintenance of these institution … the donation promised amount to Rs 113 … I fear we shall have to wait a long time before the community come forward with the necessary fund for their support.”

He also writes that “two pieces of land on which the hospitals may be built have been promised by the Zamorin Rajah and the Umbadi Kovilagom Ranee,” with the mention that if “diverted from charitable intention the lands shall again be considered the private property of the donors.” In October 1859, the Chief Secretary’s order arrives thanking the Zamorin and instructing the Collector to “accept from the present owner the two pieces of land.” The leprosy hospital was subsequently re-located to Chevayur.

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents)

Source: Regional Archives, Kozhikode

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