The story of a sanatorium

The Tambaram Sanatorium, to most people, is a railway station, the sanatorium having long ago made way for a hospital. But its story, or that of its founder Dr. David Jacob Aaron Chowry-Muthu, is interesting.

Savarimuthu was born in 1864 and of his early life there are no details. He proceeded to England to qualify in medicine and was, by the 1890s, an MD and an MRCS. Fighting the colour bias and being one of the earliest commoners from India to settle in England must have been a challenge. But he was more than successful. By 1891, he was Chowry-Muthu and had courted and married a British woman – Margaret Fox.

In medicine, Dr. Chowry-Muthu specialised in pulmonary tuberculosis. In an era when BCG was yet unknown, he was a strong advocate of the open air and clean surroundings cure for the dreaded disease, which meant the sequestering of patients in sanatoria. By the early 1900s, he was physician-in-charge of the Inglewood Sanatorium at the Isle of Wight. By 1910 or so, Dr. Chowry-Muthu had established the Hill Grove sanatorium at Mendip Hills, Somerset. One of his high profile patients, albeit for a brief while in 1917, was Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematician.

Another of Dr. Chowry-Muthu’s friends was Mahatma Gandhi, who shared his views on nature cures. Perhaps due to the latter’s influence, Dr. Chowry-Muthu began spending increasing amounts of time in India from 1920 onwards. It was then that he hit upon the idea of beginning a sanatorium for tubercular patients. He acquired 250 acres of land in Tambaram and on April 9 1928, the sanatorium, with 12 beds was inaugurated by Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.

Unfortunately, the doctor’s wife died in England the same year. By 1930, he was keen to go back and requested the government to acquire the sanatorium. In 1937, with a sympathetic Congress ministry in place, this was done. Among the first patients post the government acquisition was a student at the Law College. Recovering, he went on to have a stellar career in law and politics; I allude to former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer, happily with us at 98.

The government upgraded the sanatorium in 1946 to 750 beds. BCG rendered sanatoria superfluous in the 1960s, and the Tambaram facility became a hospital for terminally ill TB patients. In 1986, it was renamed the Government Hospital of Thoracic Medicine. In 1993, it became the first facility to admit patients with HIV.

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