Recently, I was asked to give a talk for around ten minutes on the life of Dr WS Swami Naick, whose life needs no introduction to regulars of Madras Musings. Briefly put, he was born in the 1760s and joined the Madras Army as a medical assistant. He found his true calling however, when he was appointed Vaccinator by the Government in 1803. That was to administer the smallpox vaccine. He rose to become Head Vaccinator and retired from that post in 1828. He received rich honours and passed away in 1841 at his residence in Komaleeswaranpet. The vast tract of land on which his house stood was divided among his descendants and one among them, WS Krishnaswami Nayudu, of the sixth generation, forked out some of his property in 1963 to commemorate his ancestor. An obelisk, unveiled by the then Vice President of India, VV Giri, stands even now on Adithanar Salai/Harris Road. It is truly a lost landmark of this city for it commemorates someone who introduced vaccination in our city – a topic that is very much in the news now, for an entirely different reason.
That brief talk led me to study in some greater detail as to what challenges were faced when the very concept of vaccinations was new. And much to my surprise (and perhaps not) I found that people reacted in much the same way then, as they do now. It was left to pioneers like Swami Naick to fight misrepresentation, rumours, fake news and blind beliefs to ensure vaccination gained some acceptance. In many ways, he was a frontline worker of his time.
Dr Edward Jenner had invented the concept of vaccination for smallpox in England in 1796. Thereafter, within a couple of years, this practice had become prevalent all over the country and from there it had been taken up in Europe as well. It must be recalled the smallpox was the coronavirus of its time – it spread from continent to continent, had no cure and while many died, those that survived suffered horrible consequences – blindness being the most frequent. Facial disfigurement was probably the least of the aftereffects. In India, the onset of hot weather also marked the arrival of smallpox epidemics and in an era when no cure was possible, excessive body heat was considered the cause. It was therefore necessary to keep the patient cool and also prevent the scratching of the pustules. Neem leaves were applied as relief for both and over time the plant itself acquired sacred connotations. It became associated with the Goddess – Shitala in the north and Mahamayi in the south. It is interesting that Shitala means coolness and Mahamayi was but a variant of Mahamari – the mass killer, which smallpox undoubtedly was.
It was in 1802 that vaccines were first shipped out to India. The method of transportation itself was unique – dried cowpox samples, extracted from a live patient were stored between glass plates and transported to Iraq where they were injected into passengers who were then boarded on to ships bound for India. En route, the vaccine was kept circulating so to speak, by injecting further volunteers in what was known as the arm-to-arm technique. These live carriers arrived in Bombay from where, using the same methodology, the vaccine travelled to the rest of India.
In the meanwhile, the Government of Madras was preparing itself. The medical establishment was then headed by the well-known doctor and botanist, Dr James Anderson, who is also credited with the first botanical garden in India, located at Nungambakkam. Under him was Dr J Dalton, remembered today for being the man who placed the Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk on a path of growth. Though founded in 1794, it was only after he took charge that the institution grew from strength to strength. It was known as Dalton’s Mad Hospital for years. But in 1802/3, Dalton had a bigger challenge – that of getting Indians to accept the vaccine. Though the country at large did know of variolation, an earlier practice, it reacted with suspicion to vaccination. There was firstly the stigma of it having been carried by men and women of unknown castes in their bodies during the transportation. A bigger challenge was explaining cowpox, that milder version from which the vaccine was prepared. This was unknown in India and so the Government, in order to explain what it was, had liberally used the term Comary (go-mari – cow pox) in all its advertisements. This, as one Mooperal Strinivasachary observed in a letter to Dr Anderson, had been interpreted as a disease that killed cattle. Thus, a rumour had spread that the vaccine was prepared from ‘humour from the tongue and feet of diseased cattle,’ when actually it was a ‘drop of nectar from the exuberant udders of the cows of England’.
Most interestingly, it would appear from a note of one Mirza Mehdi Ali Khan of Benares dating to 1814 that the practice of cowpox injection, accompanied by prayers to Goddess Bhavani had long been common in that region. The south had no such practice and variolation too was rarely in use here. The maximum resistance to the vaccine was therefore in South India. It thus became clear to the establishment that if the vaccine was to be popular Indians were needed to carry the message in everyday language to their countrymen. This was when people like Swami Naick were recruited. Their duty was to accompany the senior doctor to various villages to administer the vaccine in special inoculation camps. The first of these was held at Government House gardens on Mount Road.
To those of us reading this in 2020/2021, what follows will probably bring on a feeling of déjà vu. The public did not want to be vaccinated. The Government firstly introduced a rewards scheme for the vaccinators, based on the numbers they could get to be inoculated. Swami Naick it is recorded was one of two of the highest earners under this scheme. The Government began to entice people with promise of gifts if they consented to getting vaccinated. Today this includes apart from snacks at the camp, the gifting of rice, edible oil, condiments and rava. In the 1800s it was a bag of rice. All of this however did not deter rumourmongers. A story soon spread that the vaccination was all a myth and the truth behind the charade was that the Government was trying to gather data on the names and addresses of people to serve a huge tax notice on them. This had to be countered as well. To demonstrate the purity of the vaccine Swami Naick first inoculated his family members. When vaccinators became difficult to recruit, he pressed his kinsmen into service.
There were very tense moments in his career. In George Town a group of Armenians assaulted him and relieved him of his earrings. In Arni, a hostile crowd surrounded Dr Dalton’s tent, set it on fire and threatened him. Swami Naick however stood his ground and ensured vaccinations went on. His services were in demand all over Madras Presidency and he soon began conducting camps without the supervision of a European doctor. A grateful Government showered rewards on him – Lord Clive gifted him with a pair of gold bangles and a riding horse. His successor Lord William Bentinck doubled his salary. In 1812 he was given a silver palanquin with an allowance for bearers to carry him around in it. Five years later, he was made the shrotriumdar of the village of Uthukadu in Kanchipuram taluk. Swami Naick died at his home in Komaleeswaranpet, Madras in 1841. Smallpox of course was to be around for more than 120 years – the chief problem lay in the vaccine which did not give lifelong immunity. Continued shortage in supplies and a general reluctance to have it administered meant that generations would continue to suffer. It was finally only in the 1960s that Madras became free of smallpox forever, thanks to improvements in the vaccine’s strength, its availability and a determined crusader in Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao, then Superintendent of the Communicable Diseases Hospital, Tondiarpet. Today, it remains the only virus to be fully eradicated from the world.
Gazing down from his obelisk at the Covid havoc, Swami Naick must be reflecting on how he has seen it all.