Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

History of medicine in Madras

A view of Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital, at Egmore in Chennai

A view of Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital, at Egmore in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

For our final instalment celebrating 380 years of Madras, we visit the iconic hospitals that made Chennai the medical capital it is today

Can hospitals make for interesting history? In this city, yes. Chennai was a medical capital even in the 19th Century when it welcomed a steady inflow of patients from across the country. A lot of the city’s old medical institutions have stories to tell, from landmark cases to pioneering efforts. It is on their backbone that the city’s medicare industry continues to thrive. We ask historian V Sriram to curate a route of the landmarks that define the city’s tryst with medicine. He has 380 minutes.

Where it all began

11.20 am, Madras Medical College and Rajiv Gandhi Memorial GH, Park Town (Minute 30)

We walk into the Madras Medical College premises, past hundreds of students engaged fervently in a protest: a human chain is underway. Two hundred metres into the premises, as the strong stench of phenyl hits us, we see a red stone-and-brick building peeping out of a thicket. Now known as the Red Fort, this building which used to be the Anatomy Department, remains one of the oldest remnants of the college which was set up in 1835, says Sriram.

The structure now looks eerie: placed right in front of the mortuary, big locks adorn the massive grills. One can see the long tables used for anatomy arranged neatly in rows, through the window grills. Laid in stone and red brick, the building stands distinct from the rest; as a marker of the school’s laudable past as one of the oldest educational institutions in India.

The city’s long tryst with healthcare and medicine started in 1664 in the form of a General Hospital situated inside Fort St George. It still is functional, as the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial General Hospital at the end of Park Town, situated right next to Madras Medical College, since 1772.

“The GH was a whites-only hospital, until 1842, when the Indians were allowed in,” says the historian. It was here, he adds, that the first recorded post-mortem in India was done in 1693, by Sir Edward Bulkley whose large tomb was laid right outside the hospital.

A view of The Indo-Saracenic style heritage building housed the Department of Anatomy for several decades at Madras Medical College in Chennai

A view of The Indo-Saracenic style heritage building housed the Department of Anatomy for several decades at Madras Medical College in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

 

It’s a woman’s world

12.50 pm, Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore (Minute 120)

Along bustling Pantheon Road lies the dilapidated edifice of Government Hospital for Women and Children, masked by a number of makeshift stalls. This pioneering institute which excelled in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, was known for its main edifice, shaped like a symbolic female pelvis. The building was set up in 1844, and this edifice constructed in 1881 — but “has just been demolished in the name of modernisation,” says Sriram. The facility is teeming with expectant mothers. In one of his columns for The Hindu, Sriram speaks of an interesting case this hospital came across: one of the first modern medical records in India of a transgender person being recognised as such, took place in the predecessor of Egmore Government Maternity Hospital, then called Lying-In hospital.

Now you see it

A view of heritage building Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Government Hospital for Women and Children at Egmore in Chennai

A view of heritage building Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Government Hospital for Women and Children at Egmore in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

 

1.40 pm, Government Eye Hospital, Egmore (Minute 170)

The building — which houses the second-oldest eye hospital (the first one being a similar facility in Moorfields, London) — trumps all heritage structures in the city, with its gables, aligned corridors and green pillars. Built in 1819, it tells the story of the genesis of Ophthalmology as a recognised stream in Madras. Commonly referred to as ‘kann aspithri its formal name is the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital. “It is safe to say that Madras had a hospital entirely dedicated to the eye as early as 1819,” Sriram says. He adds: the heritage structure also has what is probably the only museum dedicated to the organ. The buildings, still impeccable, are mostly desolate now — with a handful of patients with eye patches and a few Corporation workers walking around the campus. Time stands still here; the buildings bask in the shade of 100-odd-year-old trees.

A contrasting but seminal institution for affordable eye care in the city is Sankara Nethralaya: “In 1978, Sankara Nethralaya, the not-for-profit hospital, dedicated to eye-related diseases was founded in the city by Dr SS Badrinath. Today, it is internationally renowned and remains true to its founder’s philosophy of affordable eye care,” Sriram adds.

A place of pioneers

A view of Government Institute of Thoracic Medicine at Chepet in Chennai

A view of Government Institute of Thoracic Medicine at Chepet in Chennai   | Photo Credit: B Velankanni Raj

 

3.15 pm, National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chetpet (Minute 265)

“The TB Institute was set up in Madras in 1916 and has been continuously upgraded ever since becoming the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis. The first facility to treat patients in isolation however was the Tambaram Sanatorium, founded in 1928 by Dr Chowry Muthu,” says Sriram. The peach-coloured circular office building of the institute has a dome for the roof. On the inside, a winding staircase extends to either side of the top floor.

When the BCG vaccine was introduced, a Public Health cadre, comprising doctors, paramedics and village midwives was set up — the only one in the country to have such a service in place. It faced consistent opposition from former Chief Minister Rajaji, however. The history of TB treatment in the city would be incomplete without mentioning the controversy that was generated when BCG, the vaccine was introduced, says Sriram. Unlike the rest of India, it was not accepted as a matter of faith. A Public Health cadre, comprising doctors, paramedics and village midwives was set up. “The State remains the only one in the country to have such a service in place and Chennai reaped dividends,” says continues Sriram. Former Chief Minister Rajaji was however, not a votary of BCG. He ran a consistent campaign against the vaccine. “Combating him on this was Dr KS Sanjeevi, an eminent physician of the city, who had served as Director of the TB Institute among other positions. Thus the opposition to BCG died down,” he adds.

Madras Day 2019: How Chennai grew from an English settlement
 

It’s fundamental

4.30 pm, Regional Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk (Minute 340)

The city is blessed with an impressive record of hospitals and facilities that recognised mental health as important — the Regional Institute of Mental Health, which turns 225 years old this year, is testimony to the same.

Four women from the 20th Century have taken forward these efforts. Shanthi Ranganathan, who lost her husband to alcoholism set up a day-care facility for addicts, resulting in India’s first de-addiction facility: TTK hospital, founded in 1987. In 1984, Dr M Sarada Menon, India’s first woman psychiatrist and first woman Superintendent of the Institute of Mental Health along with colleague Dr R Thara, founded the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF). Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar and her husband, Dr Vijayakumar, founded Sneha in 1986, a volunteer-based suicide helpline that offers anonymous emotional support via its helplines and counsellors, 24/7, 365 days of the year. The fourth initiative, The Banyan by Vaishnavi Jayakumar and Vandana Gopikumar, not only rescues the homeless mentally ill, but also helps with their rehabilitation into the mainstream.

This is the last of a five-part series through a 380-minute tour of heritage sites to celebrate 380 years of Madras

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 2:10:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/history-of-medicine-in-madras/article29222543.ece

Next Story