Dr. Thambiah (1924 – 2011) - A Humane Doctor and Scientist

Last year October I went on a trek with my reader friends Senthil, Babu, Shiva and Arumugham from Kookkal, a place in Kodaikanal hills of Tamilnadu to Kudiraiyar, a place near Pazhani through untrekked hill forests.  We lost our way in the dense forest and in the darkness of the night we slept on a rock amidst frightening calls of wild animals.  We somehow came out of the adventure alive. During the trek a whole population of leaches stuck to my legs sucking my blood. In the heat of the moment, I just tore them out one by one. It was only later that I learnt that I should not have done that. 

In a few days, the places where leaches had bitten had turned black and formed swollen patches. The urge to itch was absolutely uncontrollable. With every passing day, the area of itching urge rose up from legs to torso and hands and then right up to the neck. I first approached a ‘highly rated’ dermatologist who charged Rs.750/- for consultation. His treatment had an immediate effect! The urge to itch now spread to the entire body. As I was moving around not knowing what to do, I suddenly remembered the name of the dermatologist a Bengali friend had mentioned many years ago to me. The name of that redeemer was Dr.A.S.Thambiah.

It was in Kolkata that I had first heard of him some fifteen years ago. I had allergy-related lesions in both the wrists that went on to become a big black mole-like patch.  When Sujit Guha, who was a friend and a Doctor as well, saw it he said: “Why did you not see Dr.Thambiah in your own Chennai? He is India’s best Dermatologist.”

After searching the Internet for hours I was able to get a phone number.  It was not his number. It was of a nearby medical shop. I was able to get considerable information from them. Dr.Thambiah will see patients from 8.00 in the morning to 12.00 noon. Consultation cannot be reserved in advance. There is no token system. However high or low a person may be in terms of station in life, he or she will have to stand in queue to see him. They will be seen by Dr.Thambiah on a first come first served basis without exception. He had his residence on the Flowers Road off Poonamalle High Road. His clinic was also run from there.

Next day I reached the area at 6.30. There was no name plate and certainly nothing to inform of India’s greatest dermatologist. A grand old iron gate was kept swung wide open. Fairly wide pathway going in was practically deserted. I could not espy a single person. Ahem! I am the first patient! There was a wall at the end of the path. If you turn left and go inside, you get into a big courtyard. And there was an ancient building that looked like it was hundreds of years old. At first sight there were not less than 50 persons standing in an orderly queue. Having first been comforted by absence of patients, I now ran to find the end of the queue. To my shock I found the line long and snaking behind the building to a point that made it a queue of nothing less than a hundred persons.

I realized that if I stood at the end of that queue, I could stand all night and not see the doctor. Before I returned home disappointed, I took a good look at the queue. It was democracy at work. There were persons who looked like beggars, street women and the rich who drove in their Benzes and BMWs. I inquired from the lady first in the queue as to when she arrived to get the blessed spot and she was kind enough to tell me that she came at four in the morning.

Two days later, I set the alarm clock at 2.30 am and rushed to arrive at the clinic by 3.30 in the morning. I found the gate closed. A person was snoring away on a two-wheeler. Two probable patients were standing aside. Another person, who was doing brisk business selling tea and snacks off his cycle, was speaking to them in a loud voice. When the gate opened at 5.30 am a crowd of 50 persons had gathered there. That was a moment of each to himself and we ran a no-holds-barred race to be at the head of the queue. I ended up eighth in the queue.

The courtyard was full of tall trees. There were quite a few cannon ball trees. These trees brought to India by the Portuguese but worshipped here as Naagalinga trees. The trees had plenty of flowers and when squirrels played around them, flowers fell to the ground continuously spreading fragrance. I had to wait another two and half hours. There were wooden benches to seat the first 15 persons. Others had no go but to stand. By the time Dr.Thambiah climbed down to the clinic at eight with the dodder of an 86 years old person, some 150 persons had gathered in the shade of the trees.

There were two other Doctors with Dr.Thambiah to assist him. He saw me for two minutes. It was a case of skin allergy and the leach-bite acted as a trigger. That was it. He wrote a month’s prescription. There were quite a few tablets to be taken whole or in halves. Unusually for an allopathic practitioner he prescribed food restrictions as in Ayurveda. He asked me to keep away from tomatoes, all tangy fruits like lemon, sweet lime, orange and all aerated drinks. He asked me to use baby soaps alone for some time.

In two days, I found considerable relief from itches. In about a week I was cured. For this he had charged me all of Rs.30/-. Till about ten years back he was charging the patients just Rs.2/-. That was who our Dr.Thambiah was.

Born to a Sri Lankan Tamil father and a Keralite mother in 1924, he was named Arthur Sharavanamuthu Thambiah. He qualified as a doctor from Madras Medical College and later went to Royal College of Physicians in London for post graduate study in Dermatology. He was the first South Indian to successfully obtain a MRCP in Dermatology. He had plenty of openings to work as Dermatologist abroad but instead chose to return to India. He joined as Professor of Dermatology in Madras Medical College. It was his unstinted efforts that led to initiation of post graduate studies in Dermatology at MMC.

He used his great intellect, research experience and impressive memory to serve poor patients through his 32 years of service at Government General Hospital at Madras. He worked without a holiday or Sunday starting his classes for students at 6 am, treating all patients rich or poor alike, conducting his research on dermatology without a sense of day or night.

An entire generation of physicians grew up knowing him as a great scientist and teacher of Dermatology. He has submitted over 150 research papers on Dermatological subjects. The three fungal growths discovered by him are kept for demonstration and research at Centre for Tropical Fungi and Bacteria in Atlanta, USA.  All awards and memberships of distinctions were conferred on him like the FRCP, FIAM, and special membership of Dermatological Society of England. All India Medical Council conferred B.C.Roy award on him. He was made the Doctor of Sciences by Madras University and Dr.M.G.R. University. He was a silent crusader against Nuclear Power Reactors and had held high offices with Physicians for World Peace.

After he retired from Government service in 1982, he converted the ground floor of his residence into a clinic and continued his great service to the patients suffering from skin diseases. He was seeing patients till two months ago. He was admitted to Hospital on 10th May this year with breathing difficulties. He passed away the next day, at 8 in the morning, when normally he would have started consulting patients.  Huge crowd of common people, members of medical fraternity and medical college students paid their last respects. This great grandfather of dermatology in India was laid to rest at Kilpauk Garden Cemetery.

Honesty, fearlessness and an absolute refusal to recommend or be recommended marked his entire life of dedication to service of the poor and friendless. Being wedded to medical service he shunned marriage and served people with skin infections for almost seven decades. Dr.Thambiah who left us after a life devoid of any desire for wealth, a life that was lived with humility, simplicity and utmost compassion defines a true physician. He was a silent but peerless example of how a human being should aspire to live.