Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The First Cut

                 A few days back Sri BM Kankanwadi Ayurvedic College in Belgaum was suddenly in the eye of a global media storm. In this little known college, 40-year-old Dr Mahantesh Ramannavar gave his students an extraordinary lesson in anatomy, by dissecting his father’s dead body. His father BS Ramannavar passed away at the age of 89. Senior Ramannavar donated his body to science but he also stipulated that if a dissection was to be performed, it should be carried out by his son. On November 13, 2010 – exactly two years after his father’s death, Mahantesh performed the dissection. Alongside his students, his family members and others watched the spectacle from a distance and it was broadcast live on many channels. Soon – as it happens these days - the video went viral on YouTube and everyone had something to say about this extraordinary event.
                          Reading about this news event, I thought about the most important dissection in the history of modern India. On the morning of 10th January, 1836 fifty gun salute was fired from the ramparts of Fort Williams as Madhusudan Gupta entered the dissection room of Calcutta Medical College. What happened next is best described by a contemporary account “…at the appointed hour, scalpel in hand, he followed Dr Goodeve in the Godown where the body lay ready. The other students deeply interested in what was going forward but strangely agitated with mingled feelings of curiosity and alarm crowded after them but durst not enter the building where this fearful deed was to be perpetuated; they clustered around the door, peeped through the jilmils, resolved at least to have ocular proof of its accomplishment. When Modusuden’s knife, held with a strong and steady hand, made a long and deep incision in the breast, the lookers-on drew a long-gasping breath, like men relieved from the weight of some intolerable suspense” (John Drinkwater Bethune, pioneering educationist, started first girls school – today Bethune School and Bethune College). The heavy weight of many centuries was lifted with this single incision and as a later day scholar tried to freeze the moment in history – it was that precise moment in time when western knowledge of medicine symbolically entered Indian body.
                  Calcutta Medical College - India’s first medical college - started medical teaching on 1 June, 1835 with 49 students but very soon a practical problem cropped up. It was unthinkable for high caste Hindu students to defile a dead body. Not only for the students even for the society it was unacceptable. But without basic knowledge of anatomy further progress was hampered. Today going by the evidence of advancement in surgery in Ancient India, it can be said without any doubt that they were familiar with cadaver dissection. But for centuries Ayurvedic students did not practice human dissection. Both the authorities and concerned local elites worked together to find a solution to the problem. It finally fell upon Madhusudan Gupta, the Chief Native Teacher of the school to break the taboo and at the same time to provide religious sanction for such an act. Even as the government hailed his heroic act, his own society promptly ostracized him. Later in an open debate – organized by some British educationists with government support – he quoted Sanskrit texts to persuade conservative Brahmins of Calcutta to accept cadaver dissection. His shastric knowledge finally helped him to end his social boycott and more importantly, paved the way for his students to acquire modern medical knowledge.

Madhusudan Gupta (1800?- 1856) was a remarkable person. He was born in a well established family of Ayurvedic doctors (Vaidyas) in a place called Baidyabati (residence of Baidyas i.e. Vaidyas), some 50 kilometres from Calcutta. We have no information about his early life but apparently he did not show much interest in studies. In 1826, he joined the newly started course on Ayurvedic medicine in Calcutta’s Sanskrit College (Company government started two courses for native medical students – Ayurvedic course at Sanskrit College and Unani course at Calcutta Madrasa). In 1830, for his exceptional talent Madhusudan was made a student-cum- teacher in the same college. After finishing his formal education at the college, he was appointed as a full-fledged teacher. When Calcutta Medical College was established in 1835, he was appointed the Chief Native Teacher there. His primary responsibility was to translate and guide first generation of Indian medical students. While being a teacher, he was persuaded to appear for MBBS exam, which he cleared with distinction in 1840. Very few people could actually pass MBBS in first few years. As the government needed many more Indian doctors – particularly for the Army – they started a shorter course for Indians through Hindustani and Madhusudan was made the Superintendent of that course. Later in 1852, a course in Bengali was introduced and again it was Dr Madhusudan Gupta, who was asked to be the head. Already in 1849, he was made a First Class Sub-Assistant Surgeon. He also translated a number of English text books into Sanskrit and Bengali and in that process coined some of the first medical terms in Bengali.
We know almost nothing about his personal life or how he felt as a professional. In a deposition before a government appointed committee on the condition of medical facilities in Calcutta in 1837, we catch a glimpse of this extraordinary doctor: he outlined the need for compulsory vaccination of children for small pox and pointed it out that in the previous 20 years how the number of such cases have come down due to the effort of native vaccinators. Even more remarkably he insisted on providing midwifery training to Hindu women, so that they can save precious lives. He said that the main problems of native quarters of Calcutta were unhealthy living conditions – narrow streets, contaminated drinking water taken from public ponds, lack of ventilation, garbage lying on the street and rotting fish and vegetables in open markets. He mentioned Barabazar, Mechua, Kolutola as some of the most unhealthy localities of the city. 180 years after his observations, Calcutta continues to be the same unhealthy city of narrow roads with garbage lying on the street and Barabazar and Mechua continue to be the unhealthiest parts of the city! That is perhaps the biggest disservice to this pioneer of public health.
On 15th November 1856, Madhusudan , a diabetic patient died of diabetic gangerene of hand, an infection contracted during a dissection.  On his death, the Director of Public Instruction wrote, “…to him a debt of gratitude is due by his countrymen. He cleared a jungle of prejudice, into which others have successfully pressed.” Pandit, Kaviraj, Doctor Madhusudan Gupta was an example of extraordinary moral courage against prejudice of centuries.


  1. symbolises man's progress in attaining anatomical knowledge.
    Didn't u find anything in the text to criticize??!!