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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 18, January 1-15, 2011
Donovan of MMC
(By Dr. S. Tharakaram)

He made the only significant discovery in the College's history

Charles Donovan, born in Bengal on September 19, 1863, was the eldest of the eleven children of Judge Charles Donovan, i.c.s., Bengal. After his initial schooling at Dehra Dun and Mussoorie, he was sent in 1879 to Ireland to live with his grandfather, the Rev. Charles Donovan of County Cork, to continue schooling and further education. He studied at Queen’s College, Cork, and then at the Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with an MD from the Royal University of Ireland in 1889.

Lt. Col. Donovan in the Royapettah Hospital.

In 1891 he received a commission as Captain in the Indian Medical Service and was sent to the Royal Army Medical Corps, Netley, for further training. He sailed for India on September 30, 1891 and reached Bombay on October 26th. In 1891 he married Mary Wren Donovan, his cousin and daughter of Dr. Henry Donovan. She was related to P.C. Wren, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral.

He served in Mandalay, Royapuram, Mangalore, Afghanistan and, finally, in Madras, where he served from 1898 until August 1919. Initially he was in the Surgeon General’s Office before being posted to the Madras Medical College and Government General Hospital, a teaching institution since 1835. Here, he was the second Physician and Professor of Physiology. His crisp, painstakingly prepared lectures were well illustrated with his excellent artistic skills. Prof R.V. Rajam (Venereology) and Dr. Sir A.L. Mudaliar were among his students. It was here that he got interested in Kala-azar, a disease then prevalent in Black Town (later George Town).

He used to arrive at 7.20 a.m. every day at the Hospital and stay in the ward for 3 hours talking to patients and students. His bedside manner was perfect and made patients feel better. He spent considerably more on their food and did not believe in the treatments on offer in those days. He lived in a large house, Dunduan, on Nungambakkam High Road with his family. While in the ward he often demonstrated the dignity of labour by lifting cots and patients, offering enemas whilst teaching the students, and doing various other practical things. He enthused the whole team so much that the slides prepared by the sweeper were as good as his. He also started the Madras Medical College Athletic Association with his own funds and invited everyone, including the sweepers and peons, to join.

He was outspoken and made enemies easily. He strongly supported his nursing staff and the other staff to the chagrin of the Establishment. He was transferred as the first Medical Superintendent of the Government Royapettah Hospital for civil servants. His clinical teaching was sorely missed, as evidenced by an anonymous letter to the Editor of The Hindu dated September 2, 1911 requesting that Donovan be reinstated through the offices of Surgeon General Bannerman. He continued to lecture at Madras Medical College which he did wearing his convocation gown, as is the practice in certain old universities in Britain.

* * *

It was in 1903 that Major Leishman in London wrote a paper in the British Medical Journal titled ‘On the occurrence of Trypanosomiasis in India’. Donovan had seen similar cases in Madras and reported his findings to the BMJ. It was on July 17,1903 that he found the LD bodies on splenic puncture and in the blood of a young boy admitted in General Hospital. It was this epoch-making discovery that clinched the diagnosis of the causative organism of Kala-azar, which until then was called the quinine-resistant malaria. His findings were corroborated by authorities in the Pasteur Institute, Paris, and by Sir Ronald Ross, who (amidst the colonial bickerings and the desire for London establishments to remove Donovan’s name from the discovery) named the parasite Leishmania donovani. He continued his painstaking studies on the disease, gathering a large number of patients and lecturing at the Bombay National Congress.

In 1905, he discovered the cause of Donovanosis, a disease which used to have confusing names till Prof. Rajam, his old student, called the sexually transmitted disease as Donovanosis.

In 1919 he took early retirement and returned to the UK, settling in a village near Gloucester. His wife pre-deceased him in 1940 and he lived with his two daughters Amy and Helen. Helen married and did considerable archaeological work. She visited Government Royapettah Hospital around 1980 and met Prof. A.L. Mudaliar. Donovan’s son Reagh was a brilliant engineering graduate of Cambridge despite having Retinitis pigmentosa.

His children are no more, nor did he have grandchildren but there are other Donovans in medicine living near Birmingham and some of them attended my lectures on Donovan at Birmingham University. Donovan died on October 29, 1957 in a cottage hospital. Eight days before he died he was making notes in his diary on natural history and his studies on butterflies. He did considerable studies on butterflies in India and in Ireland. Some of his collections grace the shelves of the Natural History Museum, London, and in Oxford. In his own time he also studied malaria in monkeys in the Nilgiris.

His portrait was unveiled in 1935 in Madras Medical College by the Governor of Madras. In 1953, the Havelock Ward in Government General Hospital was renamed the Donovan Ward. But all the great colonial portraits which used to adorn the hospital had mysteriously disappeared when I last visited it. His portrait was unveiled in Government Royapettah Hospital in 1965 by Dr. Sir A.L. Mudaliar. Cork University in Ireland has recently instituted a Donovan Prize for Dermatology.

* * *

Despite India’s independence, we cannot but acknowledge that excellence in the pursuit of medical education was due in no small measure to British stalwarts like Donovan, Ronald Ross and Giffard. Whilst Leishman rose to great heights with a knighthood and important positions in the medical hierarchy, Donovan, who also contributed phenomenally, lived a stagnating existence. He outlived Leishman whom he met once in the company of Sir Patrick Manson. Donovan will continue to inspire generations for the only significant medical discovery to emanate from Madras Medical College.

(NOTE: A book on the discovery of Leishmania donovani by Dr. Tharakaram is to be published in the near future by Cambridge University Press. All material here is copyrighted with the book and may not be reproduced without the permission of the author.)

In this issue

Metro may threaten heritage buildings
The zoo that Balfour developed
Colletpet – Tiger's lair
Donovan of MMC
Why does LIC treat its Chennai buildings thus?
Other stories

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