From Travelers to Physicians: French Medicine in Colonial India

Le seul véritable voyage … ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux, de voir l’univers avec les yeux d’un autre, de cent autres, de voir les cent univers que chacun d’eux voit 

The only true voyage of discovery … would be not to visit new landscapes, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see a hundred universes that each of them sees.

Marcel Proust

Samuel Berthet

Spanning over several centuries, the enchantment of medicine has been central to the history of Indo-French relations. Europe started using Indian spices when the Romans began trading with India. The territory today called France from Roman time, pepper was being used for meat preservation and other usages. Malabathron, better known in India as tejpata, was among several other ingredients that have been adapted in French cooking and traditional knowledge of medicine. 

Botanical ellémans of the plants of the Garden of Lorixa, their virtue and quality, as well as that which is not, with their flower, fruis et grainne, translated from louria an francés, containing seven thome,” by L’Empereur [Credits: National Museum of Natural History (Paris) – Directorate of Libraries and Documentation]

Over the ages, travelers from France have been visiting India for various reasons. Some of the famous French travelers to India were trained physicians, and others improvised. François Bernier came to India around 1658, was well-known among those, and had completed his medical education at the University of Montpellier. His treatise Contenant La Description Des Etats Du Grand Mogul serves as a crucial historical account of the Mughal empire. Bernier served as a personal physician to the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh and then to his brother Aurangzeb. It is also found that another physician Francois de la Palisse, alias St Jacques, was at the Mughal court. The surgeon to the governor of Allahabad was Claudius Malle of Bourges, another Frenchman. These two gentlemen are argued to be contemporaries around the year 1666. From Italian traveler Nicholas Manucci’s writings we know that Cattem practiced surgery in Bengal around 1700. We also know that Farrukhsiyar had a French surgeon, Martin. 

Medicine was at the center of the project by Nicolas Lempereur, general surgeon of the French East India Company, and Ellemans botanique des plante du Jardin de Lourixa , leur vertu et quallite, tans conus que celle qui ne le sont pas, avec leur fleur, fruis et grainne, an herbarium displaying 720 species of plants more than the famous Hortus Malabaricus  is preserved today in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Each plant contains a caption mentioning its medical usage. 

Botanical ellémans of the plants of the Garden of Lorixa, their virtue and quality, as well as that which is not, with their flower, fruis et grainne, translated from louria an francés, containing seven thome,” by L’Empereur [Credits: National Museum of Natural History (Paris) – Directorate of Libraries and Documentation]

The medicinal study flourished as the reports about the plague became an integral part of the correspondence between the French agent in India and the metropolis. When Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Marseille became the main port between India and Europe, the concern over the spread of pandemics becomes even more acute. 

In the archives of the French MEA, we find records mentioning Mihirbai Ardéchir, a Parsi woman who was also a pioneer of French studies in Bombay. This was recorded by one of the first Indian students in France. Ardéchir joined the collège de Médecine, of the University of Paris in September 1890. 

Around the same time, in the 1890s, Louis Pasteur worked on rabies, cholera, and water-borne diseases. The treatment of which raised interest in the medical community in India. Doctor Gallay, a principal doctor of the Colonies, took part in the Indian Medical Congress held in Calcutta at the end of 1894. 

In 1895, is the year when Waldemar Haffkine, a Russian doctor affiliated with the Pasteur Institute started his work on cholera vaccination in India. As soon as 1896, some Indian personalities expressed their interest regarding the foundation of a Pasteur Institute in India. The first contacts were between Calcutta and Dr. Albert Calmette. He was a physician from France who happened to be a close associate of Pasteur. He was known for his work in bacteriology and immunology. 

This collaboration shaped the partnership between the Indian Medical body, the University of Bombay (through Haffkine in 1897), and Alexandre Yersin. One of the outcomes of this collaboration led Yersin, a Franco-Swiss physician come to India the following year. He led trials of the serum received from Paris in Bombay after Canton and Amoy, with inconclusive results. He is followed by Paul-Louis Simond, French physician, chief medical officer, and biologist who replaced Yersin. 

Paul-Louis Simond injecting plague vaccine (4th June 1898, Karachi) [Credits: Wikipedia]

Simond tested the efficacy of an experimental antiserum against the outbreak of plague in that city. In 1898, in Karachi, he managed to prove the transmission of the bacterium Yersinia pestis by fleas, the agent causing bubonic plague, from rat to rat, and from rat to human. Gallay, Yersin, and Simond’s works and itineraries highlight the role of the Pasteur Institute and the French colonial medicine in India. 

In 1897, the city of Darjeeling became the first city to launch the Pasteur system for water treatment. Confronted to the lack of interest on behalf of the British Raj authorities, in 1898 the Nizam of Hyderabad decided to support the project of a Pasteur Institute in India. 

The French Consul General in Calcutta writes about this move: “It is better to have a Pasteur Institute in Hyderabad than to wait for the making of such a project on the British Territory. It is a good note in favor of the Nizam, while appears more clearly the indifference regarding these issues of the Government of India and of the Committee in charge for the last 7 years of setting up an institute in India”. The British Government in India agreed to devote only the equivalent of the average fee spent yearly for the transportation of British soldiers in India to France contaminated by rabies. The first vaccination center was finally set up in Coonoor (now in Tamil Nadu), before being transferred to Hyderabad. Haffkine ended up establishing an Institute in Bombay in 1899 adorned with a bust of Louis Pasteur. 

Samuel Berthet is the Director of Alliance Française in Hyderabad.