She was Madurai’s best known gynaecologist from pre-independence days. SOMA BASU brings the Grace Kennett story that lives on in the hearts of the many children she adopted and helped deliver
A hundred years ago, a petite girl from Madurai joined the Stanley Medical College in Chennai. She was a school topper and one among just five girls in a class of 300 medical students. The boys would tease her and the other girls and throw flowers at them. She would pick up those flowers and throw them right back! Her name was Grace Kennett.
Once the boys smeared wet paint on their benches and the girls wanted to complain to the principal. But Grace stopped them from doing so and spoke to the boys herself. No one is clear what she told them, but from the next day, the boys showed a marked improvement in their behaviour. Grace’s powers of gentle persuasion, her leadership qualities and compassion for others won her many friends and admirers. She became Madurai’s leading gynaecologist. People say almost every family in Madurai has a relative delivered by her. “She created history,” says Dr.Sam C.Bose, renowned Plastic and Reconstructive surgeon.
Grace was born to Joseph and Packiam in 1896 in Tirunelveli. Her parents succumbed to cholera when she was just two years old and along with her two siblings she was sent to a hostel in Thirumangalam, under the care of Mr.Berkins.
Grace briefly stayed with her uncle, Samuel Taylor, who was a pastor. Grace would often fall sick and be taken to an American lady doctor Parker Vaughan, who was then In charge of East Gate Mission Hospital. The doctor went on to adopt her. At Dr.Parker’s house, a French nurse, Kronie, took care of Grace and she had a very Western upbringing. Grace picked up multiple languages (French, Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu). As she was growing up, Grace was constantly troubled by the discrepancy and inequality she saw around her. That is one reason she disliked going to school in her mother’s horse-drawn carriage because most of the other children walked to school as there was no bus facility. At a very early age, Grace realised the importance of a good education. After completing her Licentiate in Medical Practice (LMP) she went to England to be trained as a maternity doctor. She returned to work in small villages in Thuvariman and Keezhumathur and later joined the American Mission Hospital, now known as the Christian Mission Hospital. Grace, like her mother – who started the Bird’s Nest in Moondramavadi for neglected and abandoned children -- dedicated herself to the service of others, especially the poor. She continued to care for her mother till the latter passed away in 1953 at the age of 87. Till her own death, Grace would put flowers brought all the way from Kodaikanal on her mother’s grave at the Kakathope cemetery.
“Grace was a VIP those days,” recalls Dr.Sam Bose, who worked for two years with Grace before her death in 1980. When the English Governors visited Madurai they would call on her. She was invited to their functions and often accompanied them on their tours.
Grace built an orphanage in Ellis Nagar in 1947. No child should be allowed to die, she believed. A beautiful family can be built through adoption, she would say and much before the adoption law came into being, she set up Mazhalai Illam that facilitated adoption.
She built a maternity hospital in a basement with 20 rooms and roomy corridors. Dr.Grace was against abortion and took many illegitimate children under her wing. She took care of the mothers too. She treated slum dwellers from nearby areas free of cost. She trained many destitute women in nursing and gave them jobs at her centre. Padma David who worked with Grace in 1978 says how the doctor discouraged caesareans. As far as Padma can recall, every delivery Grace undertook was a normal one.
Grace helped hundreds of girls who came to her orphanage. She made them study, sent them abroad if she found them to be brilliant and arranged their marriage. She also helped them during their pregnancy and delivery. She gave them unconditional love. When she became too old, Grace handed over the responsibility to a core team of professionals. Dr.Samuel Amirtham, the Principal of Tamilnadu Theological Seminary took over the Grace Kennett Foundation with Dr.Sam C. Bose as its Hony.Director and Treasurer, Dr.S.Ravi Kumar as the Medical Superintendent and Padma David as its Nursing Superintendent. By 1979, one of the halls in the basement of Grace Kennett Hospital was converted into Madurai’s first Intensive Care Unit.
It was learnt much later that Grace Kennett nursed a secret. She had vision only in one eye! She had lost sight in one eye owing to high fever at a young age. It was only when she stepped down as an active medical practitioner, did she let her close circle of friends know about it.
Grace Annammal Kennett was her full name. She had an elder sister named Mary and an elder brother, Kennett. Mother Parker adopted another girl child for Grace’s company. Her sibling was named Jenini, who later became Dr.Pandithurai.
Grace Kennett adopted a girl Sampoornam who is married to Dr.Gabriele Jayachandran and they live in Australia with their children.
Rajammal Kennett took care of Grace and stayed with her till the end. She has documented Grace’s life story in Dr.Grace Kennett: Ammaiyarin Vazhkai Varalaru.
Grace remained the chairperson of YWCA in Madurai, for more than two decades and was a member of the Juvenile Board. She also started an old age home, Andhiya Solai and a mother and child care hostel Managiri.
Mariammal Wilfred, joined as staff nurse in 1980:
I never spoke to her but watched her attending to the out patients and taking rounds of the wards. Even at 84, she came daily and always looked calm. She would hold the hand of one of the nurses and walk back to her room.
Dr. Sam C. Bose, Hony. Director and Treasurer, GKF from 1978 to 1999:
Grace Kennett was one of the best lady medical officers of Madurai of that time. She was a very generous lady. “When I think of her I can only think of pleasantness. I have always seen her dressed in white. She had the ability to judge a person’s capability and ability before entrusting them with a job”. She could weave magic with a few spoken words.
Padma David, Nursing Superintendent, GKF 1978 to 1995:
It was amazing to watch Grace Kennett at work. She personally took care of every expecting mother and the babies. Everyday, Grace would do the rounds of the ward really early. At 11 a.m. she would send kanji and butter milk for the entire nursing staff from her home.
Grace was quiet and pious. Loving and god-fearing, are the two words that come to mind while describing her. She did not have a child of her own but every child adopted by the orphanage, was like her own. She took pains to get to know the families to whom the babies were given away in adoption.
Dr. (Capt) Augustus Samuel Dodd, Medical Superintendent, Grace Kennett Foundation Hospital:
“Today, the Home for the children is the garden and the Grace Kennett Hospital is the well that generates funds to run the home,” says Dr. Dodd, who joined in 1998.
The Grace Kennett Maternity Hospital became a foundation in 1978 and turned into a multi-speciality hospital with 130 staff, 60 beds and over two-dozen departments.
“It is our endeavour to continue the good work of Dr. Grace Kennett who was a friend of the sick and the needy,” says Dr. Dodd. To first help the victims of female infanticide and abandoned children survive and then ensure the right of the child to a family is GKF’s mission. “Every child has to be taken into a family, Dr. Kennett would say.”
The Mazhalai Illam shelters minimum 30 children at any time and there is a waitlist of 175 parents within and outside the country waiting to adopt. In the last six decades, more than 1,000 children have been saved and over 1,000 happy families built.
“The best thing about this place is everybody is extremely hard working and always enjoys doing something for someone. And that is the best way to respect and keep Dr. Grace Kennett’s work alive,” he says.
(As a run up to the International Women’s Day on March 8, Metro Plus will run a series of articles on leading women of Madurai who have contributed to different fields.)