Of Angry Tigers, Hungry Beasts, and the Human Mind

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Kamala Israel Vytilingam (b. 1901)

               I was born to a family in South India (Tamil Nadu, formerly Madras state). My father S. Israel Pillai was the only Christian in his family; the other members are still Hindus. My paternal grandfather was a landlord with a great wish to educate his three sons. The first, Suminathan, became a surgeon in the general hospital in Madras and died at the age of thirty-five, leaving three children – two girls and a boy. My father, whose name was Mangaan (meaning “never fading Krishna”) became a graduate of Tanjore Christian College. He had been baptized as Israel (the Conqueror). The third son, who became a teacher, died young, leaving three boys. My mother, whose father was also a landlord, hails from the same farming community. Her father was a well-traveled man with coffee and cocoa plantations in Ceylon, but these failed because of some plant disease, so he returned to take care of his property there. The first two brothers married two sisters. My maternal grandfather, who was a very powerful man, loved and respected by his clan, was also a lover of knowledge and learning. Hence, the younger girl, who was supposed to be clever, was given as a bride to my father. She in turn demanded that my father educate her at home, which really boosted the pride of the family. This was in about the year 1889. My mother had four children, the first being a son who became a doctor specializing in leprosy and in charge of leprosy sanatorium. I was the second, born in 1901. When I was a little girl my father doted on me because I was smart, keen to learn, and very active.

                My parents also wanted to educate my cousins, who had lost their parents and were living in villages, so my four cousins, all boys, were brought to our house. We were all more or less the same age ranging from five to ten years. There was no school for girls at that time, between 1905 and 1910, so I went to the only existing school with all my cousins. As a civil servant, my father had the luxury of attendants. The head of these, called the dhabedhar, used to take all five of us for games and walks in the evenings. We used to rag one another, and the boys used to tease me, saying, “After all, you are a girl, meant to wash dishes.” One day the dhabedhar asked us what we would like to do when we grew up. One cousin said, “I will be a policeman”; another wanted to be an engineer; and a third planned to be a doctor.  The he asked me what I would do, I said with pride that I would be “a teacher for doctors.” At that moment I thought this was the finest thing in the world. In truth, I wanted to be something much greater than all my cousins.

                 Sad blow came in 1910, when my mother died. She had a difficult childbirth, as she refused to be attended by a male doctor and the woman doctor, Miss Parker, had to be fetched from Madurai, about seventy-five miles away. My mother’s last wish was that I be educated to become a doctor so that I could help the women of our country. Those were the days when there were no antibiotics or trained midwives. A handful of women doctors existed in district-headquarters hospitals. All my cousins left our house after my mother’s death, and my father was alone with the children. He married again after two years, but he never forgot my mother’s request, and he educated me accordingly.

                I entered the medical school at Vellore with great difficulty, as my stepmother’s family was very much against the education of girls and still more against keen interest in studies.  One of the family members went so far as to hide my certificates when I was ready to apply for admission to the medical school at Vellore. The intense desire to go to medical school entered my mind after I saw Dr. Ida Scudder in March of 1919. She visited my school and pleaded for girls to register in medicine. Her personality and her talk attracted and inspired many of us to apply to that medical school in Vellore, which she had founded in 1918. Just then the government was also encouraging women to enter medical schools and colleges and was offering them scholarships. I applied for and got a merit scholarship. This monetary assistance was a great help to me, as my father could ill afford to educate me, particularly as my stepmother was not in favor of it. My parents’ relatives were Hindus, and it was not possible for me to get any help from them.

                I completed my studies and got my LMP (Licensed Medical Practitioner) in 1923 (Madras University). Soon after, I worked in a small women’s hospital. I was the resident doctor, and in November of 1923 there came a flood. The hospital compound was overrun, and water was rising into the wards. There was great panic. With the help of ayahs and peons we evacuated the patients from the maternity and general wards to safer places; I was the last one to leave the hospital compound, and the flood water was up to my neck as I went out. This act of mine as a young doctor attracted the attention of the public and the authorities, and I was given a cash reward.

                In January of 1924 I was offered the post of demonstrator in anatomy in the Lady Wellington Medical School for Women in Madras, and in 1926 I joined the medical school at Vellore as a tutor in anatomy and as hospital assistant. Here every step in my progress was guided by God through Dr. Ida Scudder, who encouraged me all along. I also gained a great deal of knowledge and experience from “roadside work,” whereby medicines were carried to the poor people of the villages.

                I married my cousin, who became a Christian in 1928. He was in the educational service, and he encouraged me to study when he became aware of my great thirst for knowledge. He used to sing a Tamil song saying, “One can control the angry tiger in the forest, quench the hunger of the wild beast, but no one can control the mind of a human being.” God endowed me with a very good pictorial memory, which I greatly appreciated while teaching anatomy and certain other subjects.

                The urge to specialize and to take up chest diseases in particular came to me in 1940, when I took charge of the medical ward. There I encountered patients with diseases of the chest, such as asthma, cystic lung diseases, and pulmonary edema resulting from heart disease. There was no surgery for them in those days. I was a bit jealous of my surgical colleagues, who could remove tumors and make the patients feel happy. My problems were always shared with Dr. Scudder, who never would allow anyone to be discouraged but instilled confidence by saying, “Try, dear. You will succeed.” She encouraged me to study for the M.D. in general medicine in Madras Medical College. Dr. McRoberts, who was then the professor of medicine there, questioned my capacity to earn a M.D. in general obstetrics. When Dr. Madhaviamma of Madras, who obtained her M.R.C.P. in England, returned to India, she could specialize in gynecology and obstetrics by studying for an M.D. in those subjects. To the astonishment of Dr. McRoberts, I earned an M.D. in general medicine in 1945. With a pat on my shoulder, he told me, “You were the best of the lot” after the clinical examination.

                As a medical specialist I did not have an easy time in Vellore. Dr. P. Kutumbayya, a great physician and principal of C.M.C. in Vellore, had no place for women teachers or specialists in subjects like neurology or cardiology. Therefore, developing a cardiology department from scratch had its own birth pangs.

                To me everything was a miracle, for I never expected to have a responsible position in Vellore. Many men were against women specialists, but Dr. Reeve Betts, the great and devoted thoracic surgeon who also did cardiac surgery, gave me all the help I needed to build the cardiology department. If it had not been for his encouragement, I would have failed. With appreciation I must add that I had the good fortune to have a fine team of workers, who were extremely cooperative. Dr. Helen Taussig of the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, was very generous and kind to me at her cardiac clinic, where I gained a great deal of experience during my postgraduate studies in 1953 through1954 and later in 1962 through 1963.

                I was very happy that I was invited by the cardiology section of John Hopkins Hospital to attend its twenty-fifith anniversary in 1976, as well as the celebration of the 200 years of the existence of the university. There was a reunion of all the fellows who were trained by Helen Taussig at the cardiac clinic. As chairperson of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Reunion Committee, she very kindly offered me a grant to cover all my expenses, including the air fare from Madras to Baltimore and back. During this visit I reported the progress made in the Department of Cardiology during the last twenty years at C.M.C. Vellore.

                As I look back on the way I have progressed professionally, I recall the development of the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore. It was a medical school for women when I joined its staff. Under the able guidance of Dr. Ida Scudder it has developed into a fine hospital and a coeducational medical college. It serves the medical needs of the poor from surrounding areas and even the ones from far-off places. Many professional experts from India and abroad have contributed to its growth. Dr. Scudder’s devotion and broad vision have guided this development. As each department advanced, it became possible to give many students and doctors their medical education and specialist qualification. Above all, the Christian Medical College and Dr. Scudder’s guidance have helped persons like me to develop and to contribute to the institution. I would fail in my duty if I did not mention the new branches in medicine, such as transplantation of kidneys and open-heart surgery, with valve replacements and so on. There are also many other fields in which research is being done.

                From my small beginning as a medical woman with four years of training, I was given an opportunity and facilities to undertake postgraduate studies and to specialize in subjects like medicine, chest diseases, and cardiology. I think I would have had a great deal of difficulty if I had not had the encouragement of a person like Dr. Scudder and without the facilities that are provided at Vellore. A woman doctor would not have had these opportunities in any other medical institutions, as medical men in those days were opposed to women becoming specialists in areas other than obstetrics and gynecology. Even after I had established a good cardiology department, some men patients, educated and uneducated, looked at me with awe and wonder, questioning the capacity of a woman doctor to do cardiac work and even to be a physician.

                I retired from this institution at Vellore in 1967. A colleague Dr. J.L. McPhail, was in charge of the surgical thoracic unit and was asked to write an article on this department. He paid me many compliments and said that a woman, if given proper facilities and opportunities, can rise to a distinguished position in any branch of medicine.

                After leaving Vellore, I could not sit still with my daughter and three grandchildren, so I decided to work in Bangalore, where there existed a great need for a medical department. I joined the hospital in 1967 and worked there, developing the medical department and starting some cardiology, as well. Many of my patients from Vellore and other parts of India returned to me for a follow-up. The C.S.I. Hospital was upgraded as a teaching institute in medicine and surgery for the students of St. John’s Medical College. It is a great satisfaction for me to be able to work in a hospital and to give comfort and relief to men and women patients. I have been amply rewarded and feel gratified that I have been able to use to the fullest the opportunities God granted me.

                I am at present helping a medical friend to look after her patients (mostly gynecological and obstetrical) in her nursing home in Coimbatore. My family would like me to stay at home and relax. I feel that I relax better when I am of some help to others and I will continue to work as long as I am able.

–  autobiography by my great-grandmother, Dr. Kamala Israel Vytilingam for “Women Physicians of The World” (ed., Dr. Leone McGregor Hellstedt, 1978)

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