Mysore's visionaries

HERITAGE P

Mysore's visionaries

Radhika and Sanjeev Jain scan documents obtained from the Karnataka State Archives and discover that two illustrious doctors, Dr B K Narayan Rao and Dr M S Mekhri, made remarkable contributions to the modernisation of hospitals in the erstwhile Mysore State.

As part of our effort to study the history of medicine in Karnataka, we pored through the documents obtained from the Karnataka State Archives and discovered a report of Dr B K Narayan Rao and a document that talked of grant of foreign scholarship to Dr M S Mekhri.

While B K Narayan Rao was the first eye surgeon of Mysore State, Dr M S Mekhri was co-founder of Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute. Their journeys abroad, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, were aimed at modernising not merely Minto Hospital, but many medical institutions in the Mysore State.

Maharaja Chamarajendra Wodeyar whose vision was to make Mysore a ‘model state’ on par with, if not better than, British India set about modernising Mysore through interventions in different spheres, including medicine. As part of this agenda, doctors were specially sent abroad to minutely document the latest advancements in medical knowledge and practice.

Narayan Rao’s visit

One of the consequential visits was that of Dr B K Narayan Rao, for over four months in 1933, to reputed ophthalmic and other medical institutions in Europe and England. Dr Rao, who was then Superintendent of Minto Hospital and Principal, Mysore Medical College, covered 37 hospitals across Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Paris, London, Italy, Switzerland and Geneva.

The outcomes of the visit were: an opening for future Mysore medical postgraduates to study in Vienna; recognition of the work at the Minto Hospital by the Royal College of Physicians and the possibility of recognising Mysore’s MBBS degree. However, what is remarkable is the descriptive 32-page report that Dr Narayan Rao submitted, subsequent to the visit, accompanied by photographs of hospital buildings and equipment, and blueprints of hospital layout plans. The report is rich in detail ranging from treatments to hospital design. Dr Rao comments on new surgical methods and treatment techniques.

He also mentions the rise of plastic surgery as a specialisation after World War I. 
Having visited many university hospitals, especially the eye clinics at Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, Dr Rao highlights how they incorporate both practice and research. Subsequently, one of the foremost recommendations he makes to the then government is the need for research laboratories in our hospitals without which “our work can never attain the high quality of many western institutions.”

Lamenting the absence of adequate diagnostic instruments in Mysore hospitals, a situation not unfamiliar even today, Dr Rao says that if the University Eye Clinic, Berlin with about 50 beds and a daily out-patient attendance of 100 patients “has 5 slit lamp microscopes, 4 perimeters, 3 heretometers, we with 125 beds and 300 out-patient attendance have but one of each.” Additionally, “it is a frequent experience for patients to go from Minto to Victoria and vice versa for their BP taken because the one instrument is ‘out of order’”! Further, the few instruments we have are “jealously guarded against both breakage and use”!

Dr Rao’s report ends with a series of recommendations to set up: annual fund to hospitals; library to support research, trained staff to keep records and statistics, testing laboratories and notably, to employ women in these labs. Women, he adds, could also work as almoners, i.e., welfare workers. Citing financial constraints, only a few of the Dr Rao’s recommendations were considered: library, personnel for maintaining records, research and teaching in bigger hospitals, and providing fellowships for specialised training abroad. Others were to wait for better times.

Mekhri’s visit

The other momentous visit is by Dr Muhammad Shaffiuddin Mekhri to England in 1930 for specialised training in Ophthalmology. Dr Mekhri had at the time just completed his MBBS in Madras Medical College and begun working as a Medical Probationer at the Minto Ophthalmic Hospital earning Rs 100/month.

But Dr Mekhri’s great skill and interest was noted by Dr Narayan Rao and Dr Mahommed Usmon, Senior Surgeon in Mysore. What was in dispute however was whether Dr Mekhri could be granted study leave since he had only put in six months of service at the hospital and whether his pay was adequate to maintain himself in England.

The travel and stay was estimated for six months at about Rs 3,575, including passage money at Rs 750 and scholarship amount at Rs.2700 (=£150). The matter was finally resolved with the government approving a one year scholarship of “£275 together with passage to and fro”.  But what is fascinating is the petition submitted by Dr Mekhri to the Government of Mysore where he discusses, along with his meritorious academic record, his “main object...to serve his fatherland and to be one of the humble servants of the Universally beloved sovereign” the Mysore Maharaja.

He mentions his choice of serving in Mysore as a Medical Graduate getting a meager Rs 100 instead of going to Madras where as House Surgeon and subsequently Asst. Surgeon he would have earned Rs 200 rising to Rs 1,000.

What is even more fascinating is his allusion to the immemorial service rendered “faithfully and with distinction” by many generations of the Mekhri family to the Mysore Maharajas. This includes Dr Mekhri’s father Mohamed Jafar Mekhri (City Superintendent of Police) his grandfather Mohamed Myruddin Ali Khan Mekhri (Palace Pensioner) and great grandfather Bakshi Mohiuddin Ali Khan Mekhri (Adalat Committee Bakshi).

The petition symbolises a double movement of a desire for modernity but a means of accessing modernity through not only academic proficiency but also monarchic patronage. It highlights the contrary pulls on science and technology in Mysore that adopted the universalism and modernity of science but evolved under conditions of feudal patronage.

The Mysore State saw itself as a modernising monarchy that had to implement graded reform in the social and political spheres, having to contend with ‘tradition’ but also emerging identities of caste and religion. However, in spheres such as medicine, especially in the incorporation of advancements in science and technology, the state marched ahead with its modernising project. 

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