In bygone years two Indian doctors became icons of medicine and legends in their lifetime. One of them was that genius of “rare medical skills and boundless humanity”, Dr. S. Rangachari. The other was Dr. M. R. Guruswami Mudaliar.
Dr. M. R. Guruswami Mudaliar.
During British rule, most of the top jobs in government hospitals in India were invariably given to doctors from the United Kingdom. Indeed, there was an I.M.S. (Indian Medical Service) which was at first open only to Whites. To occupy such high positions in Government hospitals was almost an impossibility for Indians. Dr. Guruswami Mudaliar achieved this rare distinction and created history.
He was the first Indian to be appointed Professor of Therapeutics at the Madras Medical College. Above all, he earned renown for his ‘lucky hand’ (kairaasi in Tamil). Indeed, he was the only Indian doctor of the day whom the grateful public believed had the healing touch of the hand.
Guruswami Mudaliar was born in 1880 in Nalamangala, then part of the Mysore Principality. His father was a prosperous building contractor and, like most men of the day with such wealth, he had two wives. Guruswami was the son of the second wife. For his elementary school education, young Guruswami had to walk several miles back and forth. His prosperous father felt that it would give his son a good constitution and also a sense of purpose in life. After completing his high school, he went to Bangalore and joined the famous Central College where he got his B.A. degree. One of his collegemates and a friend for life was Rajaji.
After taking his degree, Mudaliar moved to Madras, then the leading city in South India. He completed his MBBS degree there, securing a First Class and high rank. With cash-rich private hospitals not yet in vogue, and with the middle class society day viewing government jobs as synonymous with life-long security – and a lure for eligible brides of status – Mudaliar joined the Madras Presidency Medical Department and was posted to the Tanjore district headquarters Government Hospital where he worked for many years. His professional colleague at the hospital was Dr. S. Rangachari.
The head of a district-level Government hospital was known as the District Medical Officer (DMO) and his assistant was the ADMO. Usually the DMOs were all British and Indian doctors could only hope to reach the ADMO status which was considered a great achievement in that age. Guruswami Mudaliar had not yet been made ADMO when he was suddenly transferred to the Madras Medical College as a professor. To many in Madras, who did not know him, the appointment came as a huge surprise.
Mudaliar was modesty personified and his dress, demeanour, and soft spokenness belied the fact that he was a medical genius of rare merit. He never sat at his table or desk but on the ledge of the window. Once a rich patient from Nellore went to consult him and finding the chair at the desk vacant he sat in an armchair waiting for the doctor even though he noticed someone in dhoti and shirt seated on the ledge reading the morning newspaper. It took him quite some time to realise that the simple man was Dr. Mudaliar. Indeed, the good doctor had the habit of holding the stethoscope rolled up in his hand as if he were hiding it.
During that era, doctors practised reading the pulse of the patient, examining him with a stethoscope and by keeping their hand on the patient’s body and tapping it with their fingers. This method of diagnosis is known as ‘percussion’. They did not bother about asking the patient to complete a long list of tests like X-ray, Blood test, ECG, scanning and more.
Guruswami Mudaliar had a an uncanny in-built knack of diagnosing the illness merely through percussion. Once, a young woman was admitted in the General Hospital for treatment. Every day, by about four in the afternoon, she would develop high fever and the morning after she would have only 98.4°F. This continued for many days and no doctor could diagnose the cause of illness. A British doctor told the patient’s parents that she was suffering from some psychological disease!
It was then that Guruswami Mudaliar was asked to take a look at the young woman with the mysterious illness. The family members gathered around her were delighted that the ‘kairaasi-kaarar Mudaliarvaal’ had come to examine the patient. Mudaliar asked all of them to leave him alone with the patient.
He asked her to lie on her stomach and, pulling up her blouse, he kept his left hand on her back and began his percussion treatment. Suddenly he stopped at one spot and taking out a copying pencil he drew a circle around that spot. He then summoned the other doctors and showed them that the spot inside the circle in her body was the cause of her illness. Nobody understood what he was talking about. Senior British doctors cracked jokes about his ‘tattoo treatment’!
Then Mudaliar explained: Right beneath that spot on her back is an abscess where the blood has congealed giving rise to the fever during the day. At night, as she slept undisturbed without much movement, the congealing effect would come down, explaining the normal temperature in the morning. The X-ray taken more than once did not reveal the presence of the abscess. He prescribed ‘sulpha’ tablets to dissolve the abscess. That was the era when penicillin and antibiotics were still in the womb of time. In three days the young woman was back to normal and she went back home. Her case and the treatment were the talk of the Hospital and Madras Medical College.'
Dr. Mudaliar was deeply religious and rose at the crack of dawn to sit in his pooja room and pray for hours. No one, not even his wife, was allowed inside the sacred room and he would wash all the pooja vessels himself. Every Friday he observed silence and would not talk, whatever be the provocation or persuasion. Indeed he was a man of few words; he often remarked that talking long and too much was a disease by itself!
He charged a moderate fee from his poor patients but he never treated anybody free because he had a strong conviction that anything free would be valueless! His fee was one anna from poor patients. He never liked to touch money and asked his patients to drop his consultation fee in a ‘hundi’ kept in the corner of his room.
He did not believe in prescribing a long list of medicines. Once, a member of a prominent city family who had been unwell for a long time came to consult him. Many doctors had been consulted, many medicines prescribed, some of them having to be obtained from Bombay. Dr. Mudaliar examined the patient and after percussion prescribed only one tablet. The head of the family was somewhat disappointed by the prescription. The family members showed him more than a fistful of prescriptions prescribed by other doctors. He merely glanced at them and put them aside. When the head of the family asked whether those medicines were good, he replied softly, “Yes, good for the man who owns the pharmacy.”
During the 1950s, influenza raged like an epidemic in Madras City. At the time the S.S. Vasan-owned Ananda Vikatan interviewed Dr. Mudaliar and he suggested in the interview a tablet called Elkosyn as enough to cure an influenza attack. The interview created a sensation and many bought the tablet by the hundreds! However, many city doctors were highly critical of Mudaliar for prescribing a branded tablet as treatment which they felt strongly was against medical ethics. Mudaliar replied that more than ethics the welfare of the patient was important.
Dr. Mudaliar lived frugally and never drank coffee or tea. He was a voracious reader and was a good scholar not only in English and Tamil but also in Kannada. In keeping with the family tradition, he also learnt Sanskrit and delved deep into the Hindu epics, bhakthi songs and classical religious lore.
He did not insist that any of his children should take up medicine. His eldest son, G. Shanmugam, worked as a senior executive in a top cement manufacturing company and was also a noted cricketer.
Dr. Guruswami Mudaliar passed away in 1958 when he was 78. He lived in the Kilpauk area and the now popular over-bridge was named after him as the ‘Guruswami Mudaliar Bridge’.