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July 30 — Remembering the Founder of the Cancer Institute (WIA), Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy speaks at the second National Cancer Conference organised by the Cancer Institute (WIA) in 1964.

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy speaks at the second National Cancer Conference organised by the Cancer Institute (WIA) in 1964.

July 30, 2022, marks the 136th birth anniversary of the Founder of the Cancer Institute (WIA), Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. As a faculty member of the Institute, I reflect on the stories of this resilient and indomitable changemaker in the field of oncology in India. Through her learnings as the first woman legislator of the erstwhile Madras Presidency and as the Founder of the Avvai Home, Dr. Reddy built up a wealth of interdisciplinary knowledge that played an important role in the establishment of the Cancer Institute along with the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Reddy was the first secretary of the WIA and later became its Life President.

Dr. Reddy made several appeals to set up a specialized cancer centre in the city of Madras. Among the several appeals, the most noteworthy was an appeal made to the members of the King George V Memorial Fund Committee in 1935 driven by her on behalf of several Women’s Associations in the city of Madras, including the WIA, the Madras Presidency Muslim Ladies’ Association, Sri Sarada Ladies’ Union, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Madras branch of the All-India Women’s Conference. Dr. Reddy always regarded the value of collaboration across disciplines to help achieve her goals and dreams. Through these appeals, Dr. Reddy expressed the importance of setting up a specialized cancer centre equipped with modern infrastructure to establish training and research activities for the prevention and treatment of cancer. Along with the WIA, Dr. Reddy was able to setup the Women’s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund; her untiring efforts in making appeals continued to be presented to relevant Ministries in power until the hospital was first setup in 1954.

Dr. Reddy helped set up several social welfare programs, especially for women and children. With every task that Dr. Reddy undertook, she took another step towardsa future that would be free of the fallacies and inefficienciesshe encountered constantly.

It occurred to me that since the passing of our late Chairman, Dr. V. Shanta, this will be the first time that we are going to welcome a fresh set of oncology trainees who will no longer have the opportunity to listen to first-hand accounts of the foundation of our Institution, and the role Dr. Reddy played in it, from the perspective of either our late Advisor, Dr. S. Krishnamurthy or Dr. V. Shanta, both of whom never passed up on an opportunity to take their students on a walk down memory lane. In lieu of this, we are preparing sessions on the ‘History of the Cancer Institute (WIA) ’for our newly inducted trainees as a part of their introductory classes. Understanding what the Institute’s vision, mission and motto stand for and its relevance in today’s changing and sometimes trying times has never been more important .I am grateful to members of the Institute, present and former, who take time to go over their reflections on what this ‘purpose’ essentially means. The Founder’s presence will always be felt down the Cancer Institute (WIA) corridors. Her presence takes the form of discussion and debate in our constant pursuit of her goals and ideals.

Every day, when I cross Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy’s memorial at the entrance of theBhagwanAdinath Complex, Dr. S. Krishnamurthy campuson Sardar Patel Road, I cannot help but think about the efforts put into building this legacy, the preservation of which is crucial. The Institute was built on the tenets of research, education with an emphasis on public health and, most importantly, advocacy. Dr. Reddy’s steadfastness, discipline, integrity, and selfless service to humanity helped her achieve so much for the greater good of society and humanity. After setting up the Institute, Dr. Reddy continued to address several socioeconomic issues in the State and, therefore, was never confined within the four walls of any structure or organization.

Reflections on Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy’s life make me wonder if a solution to current problems in oncology can draw inspiration from her experiences. The importance and value of research need to be interwoven into the very fabric of every Institution working with oncology. In a country overwhelmed by limited resources and the sheer volumes of patients flowing through health systems, more efforts must be put into inculcating the importance of research amongst young clinicians and translational researchers. Leaders must identify multiple strategies to incentivize research; collaboration is central to these inter-departmental and inter-institutional efforts. Without a doubt, this would have been of great interest to Dr. Reddy.

The successful implementation of universal healthcare in oncology is another area that requires equal contributions by all stakeholders, namely administrators in the government, bureaucrats, treating doctors, scientists, health economists, and patient advocacy groups. Dr. Reddy’s track record of bringing people together from different walks of life to help achieve a bigger purpose could serve as a guiding light during these pursuits.

To quote Mark Twain, "The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why." Theethos of the Institute is‘Service to all.’ To be a part of this prestigious Institution, its vision, mission and motto also mean that one must do everything in their capacity to preserve its wellbeing and principles. Our Founder would want exactly this from us.

(The writer is the Associate Professor, Department of Medical Oncology, PhD candidate, Department of Molecular Oncology, Cancer Institute (WIA))


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2022 5:13:17 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/july-30-remembering-the-founder-of-the-cancer-institute-wia-dr-muthulakshmi-reddy/article65697758.ece