R. Sujatha meets Asia’s first female neurosurgeon, who now runs a wellness centre in Chromepet, Chennai
When T.S. Kanaka opted for a career in neurosurgery way back in the 1960s, little did she realise that she was embarking on a challenging journey. Today, at 79, the diminutive doctor, after a long and successful stint at Madras Medical College, is preparing for a lecture tour to Turkey.
It was a struggle back then as she broke the male bastion several times over, first as a student and later as a surgeon. “Getting a master's degree in general surgery was not easy for me,” Dr. Kanaka recalls with a sparkle in her eyes. “Women were never admitted to master's programme in general surgery. Two other women had been admitted to the M.S. general surgery simply because they had won the Johnson Medal (the highest recognition for a student at Madras Medical College). While one went on to become an anatomy professor, the other never practised. When I applied for the MS programme, I was told I would never be accepted.”
Known for her passion for academics, Dr. Kanaka embarked on research even as a medical student at MMC. She undertook several research projects during the third and fourth year of MBBS, a rare feat for an undergraduate student. But that did not make her journey any easy.
She finally got her way and was admitted to the MS course as the only woman among the eight students. The men wouldn't allow her to even hold a knife, let alone perform surgeries. “As it is, passing the M.S. degree examination is difficult, even without discrimination. Every time I took the final exam, the external examiner from Bombay failed me. It was only in the sixth attempt that I qualified.”
The post of an assistant to a surgeon did not come easily either. She turned lucky when an assistant surgeon had to go on leave for training and she was posted in his place. It was under Dr. A. Venugopal that she formally became a surgeon. Later neurosurgeon Dr. B. Ramamurthy's tutorship helped her hone her skills and she emerged as the first woman neurosurgeon in Asia.
Struggles were aplenty even after this. Her academic papers were scrutinised by fellow researchers in the United States. Today, Dr. Kanaka is among the handful of women neurosurgeons who have set an example for other women.
Her favourite subject is deep brain stimulation, and she has presented several papers on it. During her several lecture tours in India, she has impressed upon scientists to develop deep brain stimulation kits locally, but says she has not succeeded. The kit is used in stereotaxic surgeries. “My job is not done until India develops its own kit for cost-effective treatment,” says Dr. Kanaka, who remained single to devote herself to medicine and who now runs a healthcare centre at her home in Chromepet.