Photo taken on the day of the inauguration
Photo taken on the day of the inauguration

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

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 who came from a respected medical family. In 1892 he founded the Indian Christian Society of Great Britain with the view to help his co-religionists from India to settle in England.

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. The two had met on board the ship from India to England in 1914 and had remained in touch.

Another of Dr Chowry-Muthu’s friends was Mahatma Gandhi, who shared his views on nature cure. 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 9th April 1928, the Sanatorium with 12 beds was inaugurated by Sir CP 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 VR 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 afflicted with HIV.

After his return to England, Dr Chowry-Muthu was for the local newspapers a ready reference on matters concerning India and in particular Gandhi. In 1931 he authored The Antiquities of Hindu Medicine and Civilization. His date of death is not available.

This article was published in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories Column.