End of a medical era

The passing recently at the ripe old age of 95 of Dr. (Col.) R.D. Iyer marks the end of a generation.

His life can be divided into several phases. The son of a distinguished doctor, a surgeon-general, and the brother of one who went on to become the Director of Medical Services, he had his early education at Thiruvananthapuram. He studied at the Madras Medical College. He was a diligent and good student and, in his own words, "I reserved my engines for my later life and the important period of my further surgical training."

R.D. Iyer passed his FRCS in London with flying colours and was directly recruited as a Captain Surgeon into the Indian Medical Service of the armed forces. Only the very best went there as surgeons and physicians. A long stint in the army, vast experience in surgery and his own brilliant surgical skills made him the personality he was.

The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw his extraordinary talent and brought him over to the civil side to be made the first Medical Superintendent and Chief Surgeon at the Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi. With his enormous experience, especially as an administrator in the Army, he transformed these "barracks" into a modern well-equipped community general hospital in the heart of the capital. He recruited some of the best doctors of that generation. Adherence to the highest moral and ethical standards and a pair of superbly gifted hands made him the legend he was. The entire Nehru family, other political leaders, senior bureaucrats and various others became his patients.

In the final phase, the Government made him Director-General of Health Services. He played a crucial role in strengthening medical services, especially for government servants. He also expressed strong views on medical education, most of which went to the heart of the matter.

His greatest quality, however, was his caring attitude to the needy. No one was ever turned away from his door. The poor had direct access to him, and this was what made politicians think twice before going to him.

His wife predeceased him by a few years. Over the last decade, he treated patients with an affection and love rarely seen in the medical profession. Not once did he take professional fees for services rendered.

He has left behind two extraordinary children: his son is a renowned Professor of Neurology in the United States and his daughter is a hospital management financial expert, also settled in the U.S.

He has also left behind many first trainees like myself who benefited enormously from his practical wisdom.

We were personal witnesses in the 1950s to history in the making, through his politician patients whom he was able to influence through sheer integrity and professional distinction.

(The writer is a senior neurologist at Chennai and was one of the first trainees of this famous doctor in New Delhi at the Safdarjung Hospital in the mid-fifties.)