Dr David Jacob Aaron Chowry-Muthu

I had a couple of days ago posted on how Chennai fought smallpox and showed the way to eradicate it. The city’s fight against TB was not so successful but it still played a stellar role, in more ways than one. In today’s episode, I look at the pioneers of TB treatment in the city  – these were people who ran the risk of infection but still went ahead and handled many cases.

Kshaya rogam or Kasa noi is one of the oldest known diseases in India – it is even mentioned in the great epics.The Bible referred to it as consumption, and this was the common term for it for years. In layman’s parlance, it was a disease where the victim wasted away. The most frequently seen variety was that which affected the lungs – pulmonary TB. It manifested itself with the coughing or spitting of blood, which made the disease highly infectious as well. It was believed that fresh air and wide-open spaces worked wonders for those infected, and indeed it did, for those in the beginning stages of the disease. Sanatoria, several of them in hill stations, were set up. In South India, the first was opened in 1912, at Madanapalle in present-day Andhra and then in 1929, Dr David Jacob Aaron Chowry-Muthu set up a sanatorium with four beds in Tambaram, outside Madras.

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. Before embarking on the Tambaram Sanatorium, he made an extensive study of existing facilities all across the country, visiting Madanapalle, Coonoor and Mysore. In 1923, he attended the Tuberculosis Conference in Lucknow and then submitted a memorandum to the Madras Government on the necessity of establishing a sanatorium in the city. Presumably, the Government encouraged him thereafter to set up the Tambaram facility.

Photo taken on the day of the inauguration

He acquired 250 acres of land in Tambaram and on 9th April 1928, the foundation stone was laid by Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer. Unfortunately, the doctor’s wife died in England the same year. Other dignitaries present on the occasion were Sir M Ct Muthiah Chettiar the business baron and philanthropist, Sir Aneppu Parsuramdas Patro, formerly Minister, Government of Madras and later Speaker of the Orissa Legislative Assembly, Justices Sir M David Devadoss and Tiruvenkatachariar of the High Court, and A Rangaswami Iyengar, Editor, The Hindu. The inauguration of the sanatorium, with four patients staying in isolated rooms was on 31st March 1929 with the Rt. Hon. VS Srinivasa Sastri presiding. Others who attended the function were Dewan Bahadur RN Arogyaswami Mudaliar, Minister for Development in the Dr P Subbaroyan Government and O Kandaswami Chetty of the Justice Party.

Another honoured attendee was Dr A Lakshmipathy, well-known physician and husband of Rukmini, Congress activist, later deputy-speaker of the Madras Legislative Assembly and Minister for Public Health in the 1940s. His presence at the inauguration was significant. Four years earlier, he had established a ‘health village’ for curing patients through Ayurveda at Avadi, which Dr Chowry Muthu had inaugurated. The Arogya Ashrama as it was called flourished till the area was requisitioned by the Government during the Second World War.

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, who lived up to a 100. The Government upgraded the sanatorium in 1946 to 750 beds. Antibiotics 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.

TB has a long history in the city and I propose to deal with it in parts. Beginning from Monday, 30th, I will be looking at the role of the TB Research Centre, Chetpet, the life and times of Dr Mathuram Santosham, and the great Madras Experiment in TB.

This article owes much to my friend Ramineni Bhaskarendra of Madanapalle who set me right on many aspects of this story.

Madras fights Tuberculosis, Part 2 – the early Hospitals