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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 4, june 1-15, 2009
'The best east of Suez,'
they described MH
(The first in a 3-part series by Shobha Menon)

In July 1844, there was ‘born’ on the banks of River Cooum in Egmore the first ‘lying in’ allopathic maternity hospital in British India – and in Asia as a whole. The Madras Government Lying-In Hospital was soon considered ‘the best East of the Suez’ and next only to the famous ­Rotunda Hospital, Ireland. In a few years it developed into the premier training centre for ­Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the country, with almost every medical college in India having a member on its staff trained here! It was also the birthplace of the first official organisation of obstetricians in India, the Obstetric and Gynaecological Society of Southern India. ‘MH’ as it came to be popularly known is now known as the Women and Children’s Hospital, Egmore, and continues to be one of the pre-eminent maternity hospitals in India. Today, it handles 22,000 deliveries annually. To think it all began with hardly nine deliveries a month in its first year!

Dr. James Shaw

It was well over a decade before MH could boast of 1000 deliveries a year, but increasing popularity soon meant cramped wards and incidence of puerperal sepsis being common from 1861 to 1868 and of epidemic nature in 1869 and 1871. With the Cooum too overflowing its banks frequently, the construction of new buildings for the hospital was recommended elsewhere, and in 1882, the Government Maternity Hospital was shifted to its present site.

When the building was completed, one Chief is said to have remarked to an august visitor that “the hospital layout may be comparable to a female pelvis. The labour ward complex represents the sacrum, the inlet represented by the lying-in wards, and the covered passage the inguinal ligaments reaching the mass of pubic symphisis represented by the main gate complex!”

Manned by well-trained officers of the Indian Medical Service, all Europeans, the MH catered to the needs of only the British women residents and the large Anglo-Indian population of the time. The Hospital was managed by a committee of physicians, but Government soon appointed a Superintendent to look after its administration, medical care and teaching. Dr. James Shaw was one of the pioneers who taught Midwifery to students in Madras Medical College for nearly 22 years and rose to Professor of Ob and Gyn, the first Superintendent of the Maternity Hospital, and the first Principal of the Medical College. Eminent physicians like Drs. Harris, Branfoot and Stuemer followed him.

The Women and Children’s Hospital, Egmore.

In a now forgotten corner of the hospital I found a plaque that reads:

This stone was placed here on Fri Oct 27, 1911, to associate permanently with this hospital the name of Surgeon General AM Branfoot, cie, ims.

The initiation of the Scheme and the Design of the original Buildings were his.

For nearly 20 years, from June 27, 1879 to May 1 1898, he ­successfully directed the administration of the hospital.”

In the next phase of its development, it was Maj. Gen. G.G. Giffard who contributed much during his superintendency from 1905 to 1917. Before he took over, the patients who had delivered over 24 hours earlier were not admitted for fear of sepsis. It was a time when sulphas and penicillin were not yet discovered and doctors had to depend heavily on antiseptic – as part of the Listerine era! He built a separate block for these patients as well as an Out-Patient-cum-Admission Block in front of the hospital and an extension on another side of the main building to form the wings. It was also a time when the Superintendent had to be in charge of everything, from patients to students. The post of Assistant Superintendent was created only in 1907.

A unique place in O&G

Madras that is Chennai has a unique place in ‘Ob Gyn’ history. The first training school for midwives in India opened here, it was the first city to admit women into medical school, and it was also the first city with a medical school offering a PG Diploma in Ob and Gyn! It was no surprise that the first All India Ob and Gyn Congress met in Madras in 1936 in Museum Theatre, just down the road from the MH. Ida Scudder, an Ob Gyn born into a missionary family in South India and who helped to found the world-renowned CMC, Vellore, was elected first President of the Congress. Welcoming the gathering, the Chair of the Congress, the legendary Dr. A. Lakshmana­swami Mudaliar said, “Madras may not stand comparison in many ­respects with the Gateway of India or with the City of Palaces – the second largest city in the British Empire. But Madras is proud, and justly so, of the place it occupies in the obstetric world of today and it is no spirit of narrow provincialism that I venture to maintain that no other city in India could have claimed this honour with greater confidence and ­dignity.”

The first President of the Obstetric and Gynaecological Society of Southern India was Sir AL Mudaliar. The Society celebrated the ­centenary of the hospital in 1944. Interestingly, the Federation of ­Obstetric and Gynaec Societies of India ( FOGSI), with its mammoth membership of 10,000, is the official affiliating body of the Society.

During Dr. Giffard’s time, a separate teaching block and hall (that goes by his name now), a museum, an auditorium and accommodation for students were built. The foundation stone of the Giffard School was laid by Sir Arthur Lawley, Governor of Madras, in October 1911. The Branfoot Block was also opened in October 1911. In 1912, there came up a very spacious nurses’ quarters named after Sir Lawley, opposite the Hospital. The Giffard Operation Theatre was another addition.

Lt. Col. Hingston, IMS, Chief, followed Giffard as superintendent, deputed from the army medical corps from 1917 to 1932. His term saw the coming up of the Hingston Ward, the H-Theatre and wards (in 1921) and the reorganisation of the antenatal and postnatal wards. MH by then had earned a reputation as being the leading centre in midwifery in this part of the world and attracted students from all over India, Burma, Malaya and Ceylon.

The Tercentenary Commemoration Volume of Madras, in 1939, notes, “Beginning with a total count of under 50 in the first year, its popularity and usefulness have increased and in 1938, the total confinements exceeded 4500, which represents the total number of births in a city like Trichinapoly. The hospital therefore has had improvements from time to time, the last of which was in 1921. Even when the bed strength grew to 300, daily patients exceeded 500 and there would be over 6500 deliveries per year!”

The first Indian Superintendent was the legendary Dr. Arcot Lakshmana­­swami Mudaliar who took charge in 1939. He had worked as Assistant Superintendent from Hingston’s days and was Professor of Clinical Midwifery.

Sir A.L. Mudaliar also became, in time, the first Indian Principal of the Madras Medical College. He was a good all-rounder – a teacher, administrator, skilled accoucher in labour wards, a good surgeon in gyn theatres and a brilliant speaker who held audiences spellbound with his mastery over English as well as the art and science of Ob Gyn. He retired to become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras, a post he held for 27 years. During much of that time he continued to serve the MH as Hon Ob and Gyn.

Dr. Vimala Nayar, retired Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Calicut Medical College, records in a journal her memories of the doyen’s contribution and the record of service of the Hospital and teaching institution. “How vividly I recall my undergraduate days with their war time restrictions and black-outs. Most memorable of that period was Dr AL’s weekly clinics for the final years. The students gathered in the operation theatre annexe in a semi-circle. With his moustache and namam and wearing the long white coat and turban, his majestic figure walked in followed by a small entourage. His keen eyes moved over us taking in every detail before he picked on, invariably, a lady student!

Have you been in the witness box?”

No? Then come up here and examine this lady. She has come all the way from her village just to consult you, since your name and fame have reached her place etc, enough compliments to unnerve the student. As she examined the lady, the Professor commented or regaled us with witty remarks. Then followed questions and a masterly summing up of the case for the benefit of the entire class and the two hours had slipped by!

Dr. Mudaliar was an impressive teacher, and a kind examiner too. Dr. Vimala recounts the stories of the many times he would help a candidate sitting tongue-tied before the examiner. “He would casually get up and walk behind the examiner as if to wash his hands. He would pick up the towel and holding it in the corner, swing it around. If the student was smart, he caught the hint, and come out with the answer, ‘Internal Podalic Version’.”

Dr. Nayar also remembers Major G.B. Thomas, Superintendent of MH (1942-47), as another unforgettable surgeon. He as an artist amazed students by simultaneously drawing with both hands on the blackboard. She remembers how, “Lecturing in the Giffard School one afternoon, he suddenly crouched in the wooden chair to demonstrate the foetal attitudes of universal flexion. ‘Imagine that I am the foetus.’ He drew up his legs, with his face behind his knees, only his pink bald head showed so much like a baby’s! He then proceeded to demonstrate how the head was born by extension and the body followed and then, Bah, the baby cried!”

Dr. Prema Naidu, Professor Emeritus, Osmania Medical College, Hyderabad, in the same 1994 souvenir, notes: “Sir ALM wearing his gold lace turban entered the Hospital each morning through a door in the compound wall from his residence next door. From the Cancer Ward, he would make teaching rounds via the Gynaec Wards and enter the Labour Ward complex. He would first scrutinise a large Birth Register and call for detailed causes of each registered still-birth. The students and staff swelled into a big band as they followed him around the colonnades and the procession was referred to as ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’. Every case retained for observation in the ward adjacent to the Admission Hall would be appraised and he would question the undergraduates, addressing them as ‘Doctors’, to boost their morale. The main Labour Room suite was well equipped for all emergencies and resuscitation. It would accommodate 10 patients in various stages of labour. No iv pitocin drip was known till much later. Suspected septic cases handled outside by barber midwives were sent to the single-bedded cottage wards.

A large ward accommodating 6 or 7 women with Childbed ­Fever was called the White Ward. Here Sir AL supervised my work, a research project ‘Bacteriology of Peuperal Sepsis and the role of ­Vitamin A in such cases’. Besides this major project, Sir AL had me grow wheat and rice in flower pots with dilute pregnancy urine to check on the potency of the growth hormone. Controls were grown side by side. There was an annual prize examination in midwifery and House Officers then received a salary of Rs 33. Later, when PGs came, they were accommodated in a hostel built on the site of former Tennis Court.”

(To be continued)


Jottings by Vincent D’Souza

Discover Madras for yourself

When the community wins…

For a couple of years now, Mylapore Times has been reporting a campaign that involved the neighbourhoods of Ashok Nagar and K.K. Nagar.

It began small. A handful of people who wondered how a prime piece of open land that should have been developed for the community had been taken over by hawkers, brokers and small-fry politicians.

What began as a simple effort led to a legal battle and finally ended with victory for the community.

It managed to get the Chennai Corporation to take charge of the area and develop it into a nice park.

The campaign was a tough one. There were hints of violence too.

And one man called Ravichandran led the community from the front.

Soon, thereafter, another issue troubled the same neighbourhood.

Major changes in the traffic flow system were made by the Chennai City Traffic Police in the Ashok Pillar area.

Heavy traffic of state transport buses on long distance routes and goods-laden lorries criss-cross this region, and the police wanted to address the issue.

But the changes completely ignored the condition of the residents in the colonies of this area.

They could not cross the roads, they could not access key utilities, and their locomotion was curtailed.

Ravichandran had another campaign on his hands. But he had to rouse the residents into action.

Civic campaigns are not easy.

Most people prefer to sit back and let the dedicated do all the dirty work. In this case, more than a handful lent their support. They did not go too far. But they did not give up.

Recently, they tasted success. The Traffic Police revoked the changed system that was on ‘trial’. The community won.

I had a few surprise calls this hottest month of all. People wanted to know if we could organise a few heritage walks. I thought families headed to the hills in summer. The fact is that there are people who take weekend breaks and some do not mind exploring our city.

Walking around is the last thing you’d want to do in the searing Madras heat. It is 30 ­degrees plus by 8 a.m.

But I couldn’t dampen the spirits of visitors who did not mind the heat.

So I did the next best thing instead of stepping out.

I was their guide, using the Short Messaging Service. And it seemed to work.

Imagine sitting at home in Adyar and guiding groups.

Taking a bus to Fort St. George, how to negotiate the police security at the IN gate, why the State Assembly complex must be skipped, what not to miss at St. Mary’s, how to gain entry to the fantastic Clive House, how to get on the great ramparts of the Fort and where to get a good brunch.

Summer Sundays are still the best time to explore different parts of a city.

Numismatist D. Hemachan­dra Rao has been looking under all the old bridges in the city. And taking their pictures.

Being a civil engineer, Rao loves good architecture and he wants to document the old bridges in Vyasarpadi and Chintadripet, in Egmore and Saidapet.

Now if you and your family and friends have not made the best of a summer Sunday, here are a few short tours you could plan.

Explore the ‘Adyar Poonga’ at the far end of Raja Anna­malai­puram, off San Thomé High Road. If the sea breeze sets in after 2 p.m. this is an interesting natural reserve to check out. You have birds for company in the marshy spots.

Check out all the heritage complexes opposite the Marina Beach – Presidency College, PWD Headquarters, Carnatic Palace and Senate House at the University and wind up with a look at the old ‘locks’ on the Canal behind the Varsity ­campus.

On another Sunday, leave your car behind. Hop into a train on the MRTS system and take in the city from the skies. Start from Tiruvanmiyur and end at Madras Beach. Take the train back but make sure you sit on the ‘other’ side.

Best stretch – Mylapore to Park, eastern view! – (Courtesy: Mylapore Times)


(By Geeta Madhavan)

Middles, mountains and Madras-fare

The Middles Kingdom: Uncommon writings of the common man
(The Times of India, Rs. 150).

That short narrations never go out of fashion is best seen in this book, which has some ‘sparkling gems’ of middles published over a span of 50 years. The stories reflect old times, life in the Defence Services and some really rib-tickling pieces. I found several stories moving. Among them is ‘An Old Friend’ by Nirupama Subramanian. A simple tale tellingly told, read it for nostalgia value. Malathi Ramachandran’s ‘Dollar Devotees’ is another cute story of maamis from Chennai rubbing shoulders with behenjis from Punjab. ‘Jaggernaut Tales’ has Kishore Bhimani recounting his brush with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, a self-confessed cricket fan. ‘Tell-tale Wedding’ by Surekha Mohan is a funny tale about the ‘girl-seeing’ ritual of those days. Narayani Ganesh’s ‘Letter from Santa’ is a heart-warming story about children and their beliefs. These are but a few of the 90-plus middles that are a must read for those who love slice-of-life tales.

* * *

Paths of Glory
Jeffrey Archer (St. Martin’s Press, Rs. 245).

This book may not be by an Indian author, but it has been included in this column because of its India connection. Also, because of Archer’s recent tour of India to promote the book. His first stop was, in fact, Chennai, a city Archer finds ‘fascinating.’ What’s more, Archer’s previous bestsellers will now be available for the first time in three Indian languages – all from the South, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam.

Paths of Glory is a fiction about the man many believe was the first to reach the highest point on earth, the peak of Mt. Everest – George Mallory. Weaving fact and fiction in the manner that comes naturally to him, this is perhaps one of Archer’s best works in recent times.

Archer, who was in the city to promote the book, says he was initially not too sure he wanted to write it. But the stories his friend Chris Brasher, the Olympian gold medalist, told of Mallory did rouse his curiosity. While serving prison, Archer read as much as he could about Mallory, a teacher by profession, whose only goal in life was to be the first man to reach the top of the world. Well, did he or did he not? Theories abound on that topic. But Archer decided to give the story an end.

This is a book that, like other Archer offerings, is, as they say, ‘unputdownable’.

* * *

Timeless Cuisine: Recipes from Harrison’s
Latha Kannan (Westland, Rs. 250).

History is revisited in this cookbook. Harrison’s of Broadway (Madras) goes back a long way when George Town was still called Black Town! A prosperous catering business run by Varadaraju Chettiar, the hotel specialised in ‘Butler Cuisine’, i.e. fusion cooking at its best, when Western dishes got an ­Indian flavour. The chefs of that time wrote down the recipes and added some given by others. Latha Kannan’s mother Thulasiamma Ethiraj was one of the contributors to that recipe book. That’s how this book has come about. A foreword by ­Madras chronicler S. Muthiah explains the historical aspects in detail.

The book is divided into Soups and Starters; Vegetables and Dals; Eggs, Meat and Chicken; Fish and Seafood and Accompaniments. The ‘Notes for Readers’ provides useful tips on how long to boil a particular vegetable and so on.

Well, if you love cooking and you are game for some unusual recipes, this book is for you.


Off the boil
(By Simeon Mascarenhas)

What’s the Russell Hobbs electric kettle got to do with Madras?

Peter Wallace Hobbs may not mean much to Madras­is but he does have a Madras connection, tenuous though it be. In fact, a product he developed had much greater connections with a couple of earlier generations of Madrasis. Hobbs, known simply as a salesman, together with his business partner William Russell, gave the world the brand of Russell Hobbs electrical appliances.

Hobbs was born on May 3, 1916 at Langton Green near Tunbridge Wells in England. Having had a keen interest in drama, he joined Christopher Fry’s Tunbridge Wells Repertory Players. In the late 1930s, he followed his father into an electricity supply company in Kent, before enlisting in the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of WW II.

This is where things start to get interesting for South Indian readers. Hobbs was sent to Bangalore for training, on completion of which he was commissioned in the Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners. Hobbs served in the Middle East with the PAI (Persia and Iraq) Force and later as adjutant to the Commander of the Royal Engineers, 6th Indian Division. After commanding 56 Indian Field Company, Hobbs ended the war as a brigade major at the Staff College, Quetta, now in Pakistan.

On demobilisation, Hobbs joined Morphy Richards, once a well-known consumer durables name in India, in South Africa but returned to Britain as Managing Director of another company that was trying to develop a coffee percolator by embedding an electrical element in the ceramic pot. Unsuccessful attempts resulted in a meeting with Bill Russell. When the company abandoned plans to manufacture the new pot, Russel and Hobbs set themselves up in business on their own in October 1952. And so was born Russell Hobbs.

Together, the two men created for the first time a coffee percolator that not only made coffee but also kept it hot. They also produced an automatic tea-maker. I suppose teabags put an end to that idea. While Hobbs concentrated on sales, Russell developed new products. The very first automatic kettle, the K1, was vapour controlled and appeared in 1955. It was expensive and not very pretty, and was soon followed by the K2, a curvaceous design that was originally produced in spun copper and polished chrome. Only in the late 1990s was the last model in this series, the K4, dropped in favour of the jug kettle. However, the current fashion for ‘retro’ styling is seeing a comeback of the original designs, with modifications. No wedding from the 1950s to the 1980s was complete without a gift of a Russell Hobbs percolator or electric kettle.

In 1963 Hobbs and Russell sold out to Tube Investments – another Madras connection! Russel Hobbs is now owned by the Salton Europe conglomerate and many of their products are manufactured in China.

In the 1960s Hobbs became a director of the Valor stoves firm. Many a bungalow in India had these stoves. In the capacious kitchen of our home, Hadley, at 20 Kilpauk Garden Road, we had two Valor ranges of two and three burners each respectively, fuelled by kerosene oil held in upside-down glass reservoirs. Though they got a bit heavy on fuel as they aged, my mother stopped using them only because the wicks became very hard to get in the 1980s. We had two gas ranges as well for everyday use, but the combination of tall chimneys and old-fashioned tin ovens placed over them resulted in the best roasts and cakes I have ever eaten. Admittedly, they were not produced by any old cook but by my mother, Lorna Mascarenhas, a culinary legend even in her own time. Alas, thanks to the many pressures of modern living, the ranges are long gone, with the original chrome K2 Russel Hobbs we once had, a Swan aluminium electric kettle in classic art deco style, and an Electrolux fridge that could run on either electricity or kerosene… and a long list of appliances that would make an antique dealer salivate uncontrollably.

Today, whenever I turn on my Russell Hobbs kettle – a brushed stainless steel jug kettle still shut off by vapour – to brew a pot of coffee or tea (no instant coffee or teabags, thank you very much), I make a connection over three continents. And I hope my kettle will last at least half as long as the two original K2 kettles that Peter Wallace Hobbs kept in his kitchen for more than half a century.

So there you are. A most unlikely connection but one that makes you feel good, like a cup of good Indian tea: Kettles, percolators, stoves, tea, coffee, England, Bangalore, Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners, Persia and Iraq! I am sure that Madras Musings would love to hear from readers who have connections with all of them. In the meantime, put the kettle on, brew yourself a nice cup of tea and muse on the fascinating and delightful tidbits of information that can turn up to expand our knowledge of dear old Madras!


Indian skimmer spotted
(By Santharam)

The spotting of the Indian skimmer by young Vikas Madhav in April has generated a lot of excitement, as it is believed to be a vulnerable species. The lone skimmer was spotted with a group of gulls in Mudaliarkuppam, around 100 km from Chennai. The bird was spotted where the backwaters join the sea (around 4 km by boat from the TTDC boat house).

I did a bit of research on the earlier sightings of this species in Southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. According to the Threatened Birds of Asia, there is a specimen of this bird procured in Madras pre-1845 and now in the British Museum of Natural History and another from Pondicherry (Puducheri) in July 1932. There are also four specimens taken from Nellore (undated – presumably historical) and Nagulu had reported sighting the bird at Nelapattu during his research on pelicans in the 1980s. However, Salim Ali in the Handbook says this species has not been recorded below 16° N (latitude) and in Sri Lanka. T.C. Jerdon’s book (3 vols.) mentions that this species is widespread throughout India. Has the decline in this species been recent? It is considered vulnerable by the BirdLife International. The bird, incidentally, is also found in brackish habitats. My only sighting of this bird has been in the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park in Gujarat in 1989 en route to Pirotan Island. (Courtesy: Madras Naturalists’ Society Bulletin)


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