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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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      Acknowledgements

      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.

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      Correspondence to Kavita Sivaramakrishnan.

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      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

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      Keywords

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