A Nobel Cause

A mosquito whined past me yesterday and I remembered childhood days in Bengaluru when windows were shut as early as mid-afternoon to keep out this winged menace. Doors had wire mesh frames and the garden was fumigated regularly. The precautions were valid. Malarial fever had taken lives across India for centuries. It was also widely believed that while developmental projects had been initiated aggressively across the country in the mid-19th century, scant thought had been paid to planning drainage and sanitation systems alongside. Many cities, including Bengaluru, had not yet put sanitation systems in place. As death tolls rose across the country, authorities finally began to investigate the fever’s cause.

Bowring Hospital old wing

Bowring Hospital old wing. Pic courtesy: Nirlek Dhulla

The Bowring Hospital in Bangalore was built in the European Classical style and formally inaugurated in 1868 by LB Bowring, British Commissioner to Mysore. It was set up along the lines of the Lariboisiere Hospital in Paris and remained the only civil medical institution in the city till 1900. It had an X-Ray and Pathological Laboratory, as well as 104 beds, out of which 80 were for men, and only 24 were reserved for women outpatients!  In 1897, the women’s section was added and named after Victoria Curzon, wife of Lord Curzon, Viceroy. Both hospitals were directly administered to by the British and overseen by one Superintendent. They were handed over to the state of Mysore in 1947.

On the 20th of May, 1890, a young, Indian born (Almora) doctor named Ronald Ross from the Indian Medical Service, arrived at Bowring Hospital as Staff Surgeon. He left three years later only to return again on 9th September, 1895 as Officiating Residency Surgeon while investigating a large outbreak of cholera. Ross’s duties included creating a report on sanitary arrangements in Bangalore, building a health department and joining a committee that would reconstruct the municipal regulations.

At the time, it was widely believed that the malaria `germ’ was bred in marshy land (`male’ meaning bad, and `aria’ meaning air) and infection was caused by drinking contaminated water. But mosquitoes became prime suspects for Ross during a demonstration of the same by Dr. Patrick Manson when on home leave in England around 1894. This was confirmed when his friend, Rev.Guthrie Tait, Principal at Central College, Bengaluru,  caught malaria after sleeping without a mosquito net while on a fishing trip together near Ootacamund. Ross’ father too, had fallen ill with malaria in India. Ross began to catch and dissect mosquitoes regularly. Experiments were conducted and it is recorded that people from the lower castes volunteered to drink contaminated water for a fee. They expected to be paid more if taken ill. Twenty-two experiments later, drinking water was ruled out as a possibility.

Alternate ideas were then investigated. Ross’ detailed records mention a hapless Mr. Appia, Assistant Surgeon at the Bowring Civil Hospital, Bengaluru, who `courageously’ volunteered for the experiment. Appia had already suffered from malaria previously. He was exposed to and bitten by five mosquitoes which had been partially fed on a case of crescents. The result was yet again, negative. Dogged by a sense of failure, Ross continued experiments in Bengaluru but began to wonder if he was on the wrong mosquito trail. In April 1897, while walking in the hills, he chanced upon a new, hunched over, spotted species in the Nilgiris. He had never seen it before.

Ross was then transferred to Secunderabad three months later where one Husein Khan was paid 1 anna to be bitten by this new mosquito that the world would come to know as the genus, Anopheles. 10 annas and many investigations later, Ross found his answer in the parasites hidden in its stomach on August 20th 1897, when he was down to the last two blood fed mosquitoes kept for dissection. He wrote a paper on this initial discovery when back in Bengaluru for a brief period around 4th September 1897. It was published in the 18th December,1897 issue of the British Medical Journal and the rest of the story is of course, Nobel Prize winning history.

Thousands of people continue to swarm into the Bowring and Lady Curzon Hospital daily. They remain unaware of the famous doctor who ruminated over his discovery at the Bronson’s West End (now the Taj Group hotel) and once worked in this hospital in present day Shivajinagar. Bengaluru was a small town, yes, but it made many big contributions to the world.

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6 comments

  1. Deepak Joshi · · Reply

    So wonderfully enlightening, as always. Excellently done.

    1. Thanks Deepak!

  2. The building in which Ronald Ross worked is near Civil Lines, Begumpet airport, Hyderabad and is owned by my employer.

    1. How amazing!Thank you for writing in.Please tell us exactly which building this is?

  3. This is a very good piece of investigative writing. I learnt something from what Alia has written.I had known of Sir Ronald Ross’ work but had no idea that Bangalore was principal in the contribution he made to medical science and towards the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

  4. Did not know the Bangalore connection to Ross, but did know of a Calcutta connection, thanks to Amitav Ghosh’s “Calcutta Chromosome”. 🙂

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