Some Chennai firsts

Though many individual parts of Chennai date back to very ancient times, the city as an entity came into existence in 1639. In many ways it was the first city of the British Empire, before Calcutta (now Kolkata) laid claim to that title. In its early history, Chennai saw the birth of many institutions that India today takes for granted.

Take for instance the Army. The Neils Blue Caps, founded in 1688 can be called the first British regiment formed in India. This later came to be known as the 102nd Royal Madras Infantry and later as the Dublin Fusiliers. The oldest regiment of the Indian Army today is the Madras Regiment, raised in 1758 and now headquartered at Wellington near Coonoor.

If we consider banking as the modern world understands it, the first bank in India was the Madras Bank, founded by Governor Gifford at Fort St. George in 1682/3. The first formal bank, a joint stock company, was the Carnatic Bank, established again at the Fort in 1788. The Bank of Madras came up in 1795 and the Asiatic Bank in 1804. In 1843, all these banks amalgamated and became the Bank of Madras with a capital of Rs 3 million. In 1921, this merged with the Bombay and Bengal Banks to form the Imperial Bank of India. This in 1955 changed its name to State Bank of India, the world’s largest bank when it comes to the number of branches.

Chennai is today the capital of medical tourism in India and rightfully so if you recall that a Government Hospital in the modern sense has existed here since 1664. This was in Fort St. George and after many shifts it finally laid anchor in the 1770s where the present General Hospital is located. This was where the country’s first medico-legal autopsy was performed by Dr Edward Bulkley in 1693. India’s first certificate for “leave of absence on medical grounds” was also issued by him as was the first injury certificate. Of less happy memory is also the record of the first custodial death, certified by the hospital in 1695. It was also in this hospital that Dr Donovan discovered and isolated the dreaded organism that caused Kala-Azar, a killer disease then. Next door to this hospital came up the Madras Medical College, its seeds going back to the Madras Medical School founded in 1835. In 1850 it graduated to the status of a college giving LMS degrees. The first woman to qualify was Mary Dacomb Scharlieb who was admitted in 1876 and passed out in 1878. The first Indian woman to acquire an MBBS degree was Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy who passed from here in 1912. She was also the first Indian woman to become a legislator. In an allied area, Chennai can also boast of the Regional Ophthalmic Institute which founded as the Madras Eye Infirmary in 1819 is the oldest eye hospital in Asia and the second oldest in the world.

The city’s record in engineering is as awesome as it is in medicine. The oldest engineering college outside of Europe is the Guindy Engineering College, now a part of Anna University. Founded as the Survey School in 1794, it became the Civil Engineering School in 1858.It began awarding a degree in Civil Engineering from 1864 by which time it was part of Madras University which again is one of the three oldest Universities of India. The College moved from Chepauk to Guindy in 1920 and has several firsts to its credit – degrees in Mechanical Engineering (1894), Electrical Engineering (1930), Telecommunication & Highways (1945) and Printing Technology (1982).

The scientific temper that Chennai is well-known for was fostered from 1792 when the first observatory in India was established in Nungambakkam in the city. Chennai also had a full-time Marine Surveyor since 1785, the first in the country. It was therefore from St Thomas Mount in 1802 that the first trigonometric survey of India began which culminated at Mt Everest in 1845. This made the first modern map of India. The observatory also set the Indian Standard Time for many years before it shifted from Nungambakkam to Kodaikanal.

The Chennai Corporation is the second oldest civic body of its kind in the whole world, second only to the London Corporation. The body was formed following the issue of the Royal Charter on 30th December 1687 and coming into force from September 29th, 1688. The Mayor of the city also held the powers of justice, his office functioning as a mayoral court. The Mayor is always preceded by a silver mace, a symbol of office which was adapted by the Law Courts in Madras as a memory of the time when the Mayor adjudged cases. The Madras High Court is therefore the only Court in India where the judges are preceded by the mace.

A boon for research scholars is the Tamil Nadu Archives and it is the oldest modern archive in the whole world. It was begun in 1670 and has records in Dutch, English, Danish, Persian and Tamil. In 1805, the informal records maintenance was regularised and made mandatory a full 33 years before such a facility was thought of in England. Today, at its present location in Egmore, it is a treasure-trove of information.

Can we leave entertainment behind? The first radio broadcasting service in India began in Chennai with the Presidency Radio Club founded in 1924 by CV Krishnaswami Chetty. This was just four years after the Marconi Company began broadcasts in Europe and two years after the setting up of BBC. The Presidency Radio Club was wound up in 1927 and the Corporation began its broadcasting service in 1930. In 1938 the Chennai station of All India Radio was begun.

Chennai has still not given up on accumulating firsts. The first commercial building in India to win a Green Gold rating, the headquarters of Grundfoss is in Chennai. And so it goes on.