Fire at West Bengal hospital raises interest on Ronald Ross who discovered malarial parasite

The devastating inferno that rattled both patients and physicians in West Bengal's SSKM Hospital last week, thankfully, left out an important slice of world medical history.

A living room sized laboratory where British medical doctor, Ronald Ross, researched painstakingly for over a decade and received the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902 for his work on transmission of malaria, becoming the first British Nobel laureate, and the first born outside of Europe.

The laboratory was saved, so was a small sized memorial instituted in the name of the legendary doctor in 1927.

Fire at West Bengal hospital raises interest on Ronald Ross who discovered malarial parasite

Firefighters (left) at SSKM hospital managed to save a laboratory where Nobel Prize winner, physician Ronald Ross (right), discovered the malarial parasite. Image courtesy: PTI and

Sir Ross’s discovery of the malarial parasite in the gastrointestinal tract of a mosquito proved malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes, which laid the foundation for the method of combating the disease.

The blaze originated on 22 November in a newly constructed library on the sixth floor of the Ronald Ross building, which houses several departments of the hospital, in the morning. The floor, which houses the male and female plastic surgery wards and a nurse station, was immediately evacuated. As many as 19 fire tenders brought the blaze under control.

"We incurred damages in some of the wards but ensured the fire did not reach the Ross laboratory. Like human lives, this one was also extremely important for us," Dr Nimal Majhi, a physician who works closely with the state’s government hospitals, said in an interview.

"It was a great relief, the fire was precariously close," said Dr Majhi, adding that efforts are already on to set up a building for research in the name of the legendary doctor, who was also an amateur artiste and poet. He published several novels and composed songs as well. “The state government is contemplating constructing an auditorium in his name in Kolkata,” he added.

The fire at the state-run SSKM Hospital was doused after two hours. Around 150 people, including patients, visitors, staff and bystanders, were evacuated but the accident set off an alarm because it was the second such incident in the hospital in two months.

Dr Tamanesh Bhattacharya, a seasoned physician, said he was happy authorities at SSKM — known as Presidency General during the colonial days — managed to save what he considered one of the most important legacies of world medicine.

“Ross is back in news, and it is good that the state government is trying to preserve an important legacy. His work saved millions lives across the world, including soldiers of the two World Wars. Let's not forget malaria was nightmarish for almost three decades before Ross made the breakthrough. He should always be remembered,” said Dr Bhattacharya.

There is another tinge of history in the life of the doctor, though. The eldest of ten children of Sir Campbell Claye Grant Ross, a general in the British Indian Army, and Matilda Charlotte Elderton, Ross was born in Almora (now in Uttarakhand) in 1857, the year of the Sepoy movement that historians consider India’s First War of Independence, or the Great Rebellion.

"His work was phenomenal, so was his love for people in India, especially Kolkata where he regularly interacted with writers, poets and actors, often acting in stage shows,” says Kolkata’s seasoned politician and historian, Nirbed Ray.

Ray said he felt happy that the state government plans to preserve the legacy of Ross. "It should have been done earlier, the memorial came up in 1927, and he was even present to inaugurate it," said Ray.

The doctor achieved a breakthrough in August 1898, when he managed to culture 20 adult "brown" mosquitoes from collected larvae, and then successfully infecting the mosquitoes from a patient (named Husein Khan) for a price of 8 annas (one anna per blood-fed mosquito). And after blood-feeding, he dissected the mosquito and recovered a "circular cell" from its gut. It was on 20 August 1898 that Dr Ross confirmed the presence of the malarial parasite inside the gut of the mosquito, and the following day he confirmed the growth of the parasite in the mosquito.

Ray said Dr Ross, overjoyed, even composed a poem for his discovery and posted it to his wife in faraway Liverpool. It read:

This day relenting God
Hath placed within my hand
A wondrous thing; and God
Be praised. At His command,
Seeking His secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.
I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death, where is thy sting?
Thy victory, O Grave?

Almost 84 years later, the legacy of the famed physician is being resurrected in the city where he found ways to counter what was then one of the world’s biggest medical crisis.

"Never mind if a fire rekindled our memories, better late than never," said Ray.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2016 19:42:30 IST

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