Madurai Corporation’s first woman doctor turns 100 on April 27

While arthritis has restricted her mobility over the last eight years, the pandemic lockdown has confined her to her room over the last 14 months. But Madurai’s much-loved obstetrician, Dr R Padmavathy, has a spirit that refuses to be cowed down. Her 100th birthday is just a week away. Her family realises it is a milestone but unfortunately cannot get together for a celebration in the midst of the pandemic.

Blessed with three sons, a daughter, their spouses, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren spread between the US and Chennai, the matriarch worries about their health and safety. “We will cut a cake at home and do a video call with the others,” says Dr R Gurusundar, her eldest son, who lives with her in Madurai.

Madurai Corporation’s first woman doctor turns 100 on April 27

Her loved ones in Chennai used to take turns to visit her every month. “I miss my grandchildren,” says Dr Padmavathy, and breaks into a song that, she says, was written on the day she was born by her father Dr R Sundararajan. In the song, he fondly calls her Muni Prema (after her mother Muniammal) and declares that his first child born on April 27, 1921, would grow up to care for women’s health.

Watch | Madurai’s first woman doctor turns 100

Man with a vision

In the 1900s, Dr Padmavathy’s father, a well known Licensed Medical Practitioner, was perturbed by the plight of women in the region as they chose to suffer than consult a male doctors. Of her nine siblings, five sisters and two brothers went on to join the medical profession.

People from her community — apparently as a mark of protest against her going to school — would often throw her school bag into the well. Each time, her father bought her a new set of books and raised her confidence. There was family pressure to get her married at 15 but yet again, her father resisted and got her enrolled at The American College, Madurai, for Intermediate.

Later, she completed MBBS from Madras Medical College in 1949 and joined Government Erskine Hospital in Madurai as House Surgeon where her father was working as Senior Civil Surgeon. He welcomed his daughter with an Austin and the 28-year-old woman created a flutter on Madurai’s streets — a lady doctor who could also drive a car was an uncommon combination those days. “My father believed in equality and empowerment and motivated me to become a role model for young girls,” she says.

When Dr Padmavathy got selected as an Assistant Civil Surgeon and was posted as the medical officer in Kodaikanal Government Hospital, there was a tussle between the then-Commissioner of Madurai Municipality who sought her services, and the District Medical Officer, who would not let her off the Government job. Yet again, her father’s word prevailed; he wanted his daughter to serve women in hometown Madurai. And so, Dr Padmavathy became the first lady doctor to join the then-Madurai Municipality in 1950. It was upgraded as Corporation in 1971.

She soon became the Superintendent of all the municipal maternity homes. Her popularity soared as she helped in safe delivery of thousands of babies through normal childbirth.

Madurai Corporation’s first woman doctor turns 100 on April 27

“Nothing baffled her and her delivering high-risk pregnancy cases with success became a household story,” says Padmavathy’s eldest daughter-in -law, Dr G Sundari, who too was delivered by her “safe hands”.

A career of firsts

Showing sepia-toned photos of her trip to Poland for advanced training in maternity and child health sponsored by the World Health Organization in 1969, Padmavathy goes down memory lane. She was among the three Indian doctors selected for the training, and upon returning she pioneered and shaped mass maternity and child health programmes. She integrated the two, and subsequently the Central Government adopted this as a health policy.

She introduced the dormiciliary deliveries (health visitors assisted safe deliveries in the rural interiors in the homes of pregnant women who could not visit hospitals) and also got the Corporation Council sanction an exclusive 24X7 standby ambulance that could rush pregnant women to the Goverment Hospital in case of emergency. She remembers the vacuum apparatus she got from Warsaw. It was a game changer for her as she carried out many vacuum-assisted safe deliveries of babies in Tamil Nadu. Not only was she the choice of the commoners but was also sought after by several VIP families.

Madurai Corporation’s first woman doctor turns 100 on April 27

She married at 30 and built a 10-bed nursing home-cum-residence on Perumal Koil Street with her supportive husband G Ramaswami, who was a school headmaster. Called the Padmalaya Health Clinic, it still stands basking in her reputation, perhaps the only health centre without a theatre for caesarian operations.

In later years her son, a general surgeon, and his gynaecologist wife trained by Dr.Padmavathy established the Padmalaya Medical Centre in Jainhindpuram. The couple now runs both the places. Sundari says her mother-in-law assisted her till the age of 90 and her dedication and energy always amazed her. Even now, she wakes up at the crack of dawn and goes about her day at her pace, singing hymns, reading newspapers, watching television, doing physiotherapy and having her meals on time. Dr.Padmavathy wishes the pandemic ends soon so that she can resume her outings in the wheel chair.

“When I entered this house as a bride, she told me the woman has to be the head of the house and gave me all freedom. Her zest for life is worth emulating," says Sundari.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 8:34:10 AM |

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