An irritable state: the contingent politics of science and suffering in anti-cancer campaigns in South India (1940–1960)


This article traces the making of anti-cancer campaigns in South India. Set at the cusp of decolonization, it explores how provincial physicians and women activists framed cancer care in the 1940s and 1950s. It offers insights into the argumentative, contingent ways in which public health concerns were framed and mobilized in Indian cities between a middle class public, medical experts and state agency. These cancer campaigns and local health debates have been neglected because historians have tended to focus on national level, political visions of health, on debates regarding international aid, transfer of medical technology, and targeted disease control programs. This has also shaped and limited how we have understood the complex, changing meanings and expectations of health and development in newly decolonized societies such as India. Analyzing the activist campaigns and writings of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi an influential physician, renowned Women’s Indian Association leader, and legislator, and tracing the making of urban, anti-cancer networks, I argue that cancer care campaigns both invoked and challenged nationalist and developmental priorities, and questioned assumptions about what were termed as ‘normative’ diseases and health risks in India. Even though they spoke of the curative, technoscientific and specialized aspects of cancer treatment and urged its provision in local hospitals, they also encouraged the state and philanthropists to assume moral responsibilities for care and chronic suffering. They built on contemporary social and political metaphors, especially Tamil cultural representations of women. These ideas created emerging spaces for debates through multiple discursive ambits that emerged while trying to articulate and balance ‘needs’ that were seen as dichotomous and competing between managing population wide, curable diseases and the needs of a vocal, minority of advocates supporting cancer care. These debate were no doubt also limited by the visions of middle-class women, urban philanthropy, and engagements with male political leaders, and health officials.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 74

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.


  1. 1.

    Blacktown was a densely populated and commercial area populated by natives around the British founded Fort St George.

  2. 2.

    See reports in the Indian Medical Gazette, 1892–1900. Reddi and the WIA founded the Cancer Relief Fund in 1949. They received funds from philanthropists in Madras, and messages in support from senior Congress Ministers, Governors, and health officials: such as Pattabhi Sittaramayya, Dr. Jivaraj Mehta, encouragement from the Central Health Minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, and senior health official, K.C.K.E. Rajah. Reddi and others also evoked as precedent other specialized medical institutions built from philanthropy such as New York Memorial Hospital, and Ida Scudder’s, Christian Medical College at Vellore.

  3. 3.

    The Women’s Indian Association (WIA) was founded in Madras in May, 1917 and initiated social and political struggles for women. Annie Besant, the Irish Suffragist, Margaret Cousins, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, Sister Subbalaskmi and Sarojini Naidu were its founder members. The WIA was affiliated with the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC).

  4. 4.

    Muthulakshmi Reddi (1886–1968, sometimes spelt as ‘Reddy’) was the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, later also the first women legislator in British India, she became President of the AIWC in 1931, and remained an influential figure in the women’s movement until the late 1950s.

  5. 5.

    Deshmukh’s wife Durgabai Deshmukh was a prominent social worker, and founder of women’s reform bodies.

  6. 6.

    The notion of chronic irritation as a source of cancer and its spread through inflammation.

    originated with Virchow, and persisted with well-known cancer epidemiologists such as the American epidemiologist Frederick Hoffman who wrote about the prevalence of cancer in India and elsewhere.

  7. 7.

    A Barnard Radiology hospital statement reveals a grant from Canada: “On 17th February, 1959, the Government of Canada under the Colombo Plan, gifted the 3000 Curie Cobalt 60 Source for our Cobalt Beam Unit, at a cost of 10,500 dollars.” See, “Review of the Cancer Institute, Cowdry Papers.”

  8. 8.

    Girls and women dedicated to a temple deity and tied hereditarily to ‘service’ to South Indian temples as dancers and performers of rituals. Reddi and other campaigners protested against their sexual abuse and social enslavement in temple rituals.

  9. 9.

    Muthulakshmi Reddi proposed the Devadasi Abolition bill in 1930, but it was only passed as an Act in 1947.

  10. 10.

    By 1955, evoking an iconography of saintly Tamil women and mother figures who served society selflessly had a new medium, in a movie on Avvaiyar; and Reddi did not hesitate to invite its producer (Vasan) to raise funds for a building for an industrial work institute that was supported by the Government of India (Home, Education, 1955).

  11. 11.

    Gandhi’s satyagraha or passive resistance created spaces for women’s participation, he viewed Indian women as embodying sacrifice and suffering, and vital to India’s social reconstruction.

  12. 12.

    Cancer education poster exhibitions did travel to Vellore (to be hosted at the Christian Medical College there), Coimbatore, Madurai, Kanchipuram and other towns and cities though with what frequency and their audience is unclear.

  13. 13.

    The Cancer Committee consisted of the Deputy health Minister to the Government of India, the Director General of Health Services, senior health functionaries, and heads of cancer research centers and hospitals, and Radium Institutes.


    Private Papers

      E. V. Cowdry Papers, the University of Washington, Missouri, Microfilm

      1. Review of the Cancer Institute, Cancer Relief Fund (1949–59), pp. 14–15. Series 126, Box 120, Folders 12–14.


      1. Dr. Shantha, Adyar Cancer Hospital (In August 2015 and 2017, and on 2/16/2016).

      Wellcome Trust Library, History of Medicine Collections, London

      1. Dr. K. Manjunath Rai, Barnard Institute of Radiology, Madras to Captain E.J.C. Chapman, British Empire Cancer Campaign (18 Nov 1947) Radiation Therapy Legislation. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.

      2. Ralston Peterson, Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute, Manchester to Captain Tours, General Secretary, British Empire Cancer Campaign (4 Feb 1947) Regarding Journal of the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Association Madras. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.

      3. Dr. V. Krishnamoorthy, Barnard Institute of Radiology to Secretary British Empire Cancer Campaign (21 January 1947) Regarding Possibility for Research Grant. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.

      4. Madras Mail (4 August 1945) Need for Separate Associations for Treatment of Cancer-Radiological Association Formed in Madras (News Clipping). SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.

      Tamil Nadu, State Government Archives

      1. Health Department Series. 1950. Cancer Propaganda among the people-leaflet for printing of copies in Tamil and Telegu Languages for Distribution during exhibitions and fairs and festivals-Ordered. G.O. Number 1217, 5-4-50.

      2. G.O. from the Office of Secretary to Health, Education and Local Administration (HELA), Government of Madras. (26th December 1953). No. 4227. Medical Institutions-Kasturba Hospital for Women and Children Madras and the Erskine Hospital, Madurai-Provision of Facilities for Cancer Treatment-Proposal Deferred.

      National Archives, Delhi

      1. Home Affairs, Education Department, “Scheme No 6 1955-56 Avai Home and Ashram Adyar Madras, “Branch B3, Ministry of Education, NA F-13-60-55.


      1. The Hindu, “Treatment of Cancer, New Institute in the City: Prime Minister lays Foundation,” (Madras, 10 October 1954).

      2. The Madras Mail (9 September 1886) Suicide by Drowning: Report of the Coroner of Madras.

      3. Th Hindu (June 19 1954) Treatment of Cancer: New Institute in City: Inauguration by Deshmukh, Madras, June 18.

      4. The Indian Express (April 18, 1946) Gandhi Memorial Fund Appeal.

      Books, Reports, Articles

      1. Amrith, S. 2006. Decolonizing International health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

      2. Anandhi, S. 2008. The Manifesto and the Modern Self: Reading the Autobiography of Muthulakshmi Reddy. Chennai: Madras Institute of Development Studies.

      3. Anderson, R. 1975. Building scientific institutions in India: Saha and Bhabha. Montreal: McGill University Centre for Developing Studies.

      4. Arnold, D. 2013. Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India: India’s Historical Experience in Historical Perspective. Isis, 104, 2 (June 2013), 360–370.

      5. Balkwill, F., and A. Mantovani. 2001. Inflammation and cancer: Back to virchow. Lancet 357: 539–545.

      6. Baru, R. 2010. Public sector doctors in an era of commercialisation. In Health providers in India: On the frontlines of change, ed. K. Sheikh and A. George, 81–96. New Delhi: Routledge.

      7. Basu, A., and B. Ray. 1990. Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s Conference, 1927–1990. New Delhi: Manohar.

      8. Bhattacharya, S. 2006. Expunging Variola: The Control and Eradication of Small-Pox in India, 1947–1977. Hyderabad: Longman.

      9. Bhattacharya, S. 2008. The World Health Organization and global smallpox eradication. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 62 (10): 909–912.

      10. Bianco, G. 2013. The origins of Georges Canguilhem’s Vitalism’: Against the anthropology of irritation. In Vitalism and the scientific image in post-enlightenment life science, ed. Sebastian Normandin and Charles T. Wolfe, 1800–2001. New York: Springer.

      11. Bose, S. 1997. Instruments and idioms of colonial and National development. In International development and the social sciences: Essays on the history and politics of knowledge, ed. F. Cooper and R. Packard, 45–63. Berkeley: University of California Press.

      12. Broom, A., and Assa Doron. 2011. The rise of cancer in urban India: Cultural understandings, structural inequalities and the emergence of the clinic. Health 16 (3): 250–266.

      13. Broom, A., K. Kenny, V. Bowden, N. Mupavarram, and M. Chitem. 2017. Cultural ontologies of cancer. Critical Public Health 28 (1): 48–58.

      14. Canguilhem, Georges. 1991. The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett &Robert S. Cohen. New York: Zone Books.

      15. Cervero, F. 2012. Understanding pain: Exploring the perception of pain. Cambridge: MIT Press.

      16. Chatterjee, S., A. Chattopadhyay, S.N. Senapati, et al. 2016. Cancer registration in India—current scenario and future perspectives. Asian Pacific Journal for Cancer Prevention. 17 (8): 3687–3696.

      17. Clark, D. 1999. Total pain, disciplinary power and the body in the work of Cicely Saunders, 1958–1967. Social Science and Medicine 49 (6): 727–736.

      18. Clow, B. 2001. Who’s afraid of Susan Sontag? or, the myths and metaphors of cancer reconsidered. Social History of Medicine 14 (2): 293–312.

      19. Coussens, L.F., and Z. Werb. 2002. Inflammation and Cancer. Nature 6917: 860–867.

      20. Craddock, S.J. 2009. Notes from White Flint: Identity, ambiguity and disparities in cancer. In Confronting cancer: Metaphors, advocacy, and anthropology, ed. Juliet McMullin and Diane Weiner, 165–186. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

      21. Daniels, N., B. Kennedy, and I. Kawachi. 2000. Justice is good for our health. In Is inequality bad for our health?, ed. J. Cohen and J. Rogers. Boston: Beacon Press.

      22. Delvecchio Good, M.-J., Brodwin, P., Good, B. Kleinman, A. eds. 1992. Pain as human experience: An anthropological perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.

      23. Forbes, G. 1994. Medical careers and health care for indian women: Patterns of control. Women’s History Review 3 (4): 515–530.

      24. Forbes, G. 1996. Women in modern India, New Cambridge history of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      25. Gandhi, M.K. 1948. Key to Health. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press.

      26. Ganesh, K. 10 March 2016. A woman pioneer in the male world of oncology. The wire, India. 2018.

      27. Hoffman, F. 1936. Cancer in India, Persia and Ceylon. Sankhya, Journal of the Indian Statistical Institute 2 (3): 281–306.

      28. Jain, L. 2013. Malignant: How cancer becomes us. Berkeley: University of California Press.

      29. Jayawardena, K. 1995. The white woman’s other burden: Western women and South Asia during British Colonial rule. New York: Routledge.

      30. Kannabiran, V., and K. Kannabiran. 2003. Caste and gender: Understanding dynamics of power and violence. In Gender and Caste, ed. A. Rao. New Delhi: Sangam Books.

      31. Kishwar, M. 1985. Gandhi on women. Economic and Political Weekly 20 (40): 1691–1702.

      32. Lakshmi, C.S. 1990. Mother, mother-community and mother-politics in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly. 25, No. 42/43 (Oct. 20–27, 1990): WS72–WS83.

      33. Leopold, E. 2009. Under the radar: Cancer and the cold war. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

      34. Livingston, J. 2012. Improvising medicine: An African Oncology ward in an emerging cancer epidemic. Durham: Duke University Press.

      35. Manderson, L., and C. Smith-Morris. 2010. Chronic conditions, Fluid states: Chronicity and the Anthropology of Illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

      36. Moreira, T., and P. Palladino. 2005. Between truth and hope: on Parkinson’s disease, neurotransplantation and the Production of the ‘self’. History of the Human Sciences 3: 55–82.

      37. Moscucci, O. 2016. Gender and Cancer in England, 1860–1948. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

      38. Naraindas, H., J. Quack, and W.S. Sax. 2014. Asymmetrical Conversations: Contestations, Circumventions, and the Blurring of Therapeutic Boundaries. New York: Berghahn Books.

      39. Patterson, J. 1987. The dread disease: Cancer and modern American culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

      40. Phalkey, J. 2013. Science: History and modern India. Isis 104 (2): 330–336.

      41. Proctor, R. 1999. The Nazi war on cancer. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

      42. Rawls, J. 2012. A theory of justice. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

      43. Reddi, M. 1930. My experience as legislator. Madras: Current Thought Press.

      44. Reddi, M. 1964. Autobiography of Mrs. S. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Press? Madras.

      45. Ruddock, Anna. 2017. Special Medicine: Producing Doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Ph.D Thesis, King’s College: London, Anthropology, 0200945 230-34.

      46. Sangari, K., and Vaid, S. 1980, Recasting Women: Essays in colonial. History (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1980).

      47. Saunders, B. 2010. JS Mill’s conception of utility. Utilitas 22: 52–69.

      48. Sen, A. 1985. Commodities and capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

      49. Sen, S. 2000. Toward a feminist politics? The Indian Women’s movement in historical perspective. Gender and development, Working Paper Series No. 9, World Bank: 1–68.

      50. Shah, T. (ed.). 1947. Woman’s role in planned economy: Report of the sub-committee, National Planning Committee series. Bombay: Vora & Co., Publishers.

      51. Siddiqi, M.H. 2005. The British historical context and petitioning in colonial India. New Delhi: Aakar Books.

      52. Sontag, S. 2001. lllness as metaphor and AIDS as metaphor. New York: Picador.

      53. Sur, A. 2002. Scientism and social justice: Meghnad Saha’s critique of the state of science in India. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 33 (1): 87–105.

      54. Thorner, A., and M. Krishnaraj. 2000. Ideals, Images and Real Lives: Women in Literature and History. New Delhi: Sangam Books Limited.

      55. Visvanathan, S. 1985. Organizing for science: The making of an industrial research laboratory. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

      56. Zaloom, C. 2009. The productive life of risk. Cultural Anthropology 19 (3): 365–391.

      Download references


      I am thankful to Dr. Kamala Ganesh for helping to obtain access to the Avabai Wadia Archive in Mumbai, and to Radhika Jhaveri for research support. I am indebted to Dr. V. Shanta, retired director of the Adyar Cancer Hospital, for generously tracing this history with me in a series of interviews conducted in Chennai in August 2015, and summers of 2016 and 2017.

      Author information

      Correspondence to Kavita Sivaramakrishnan.

      Additional information

      Publisher's Note

      Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

      Rights and permissions

      Reprints and Permissions

      About this article

      Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

      Cite this article

      Sivaramakrishnan, K. An irritable state: the contingent politics of science and suffering in anti-cancer campaigns in South India (1940–1960). BioSocieties 14, 529–552 (2019) doi:10.1057/s41292-019-00162-8

      Download citation


      • Cancer
      • Welfare
      • Gender
      • Inequalities
      • Health and development
      • Suffering
      • South India