V Shanta (1927-2021) (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN THE NAME Dr V Shanta is mentioned, the word that crops up most often is ‘service’. The 93-year-old oncologist and the chairperson of Adyar Cancer Institute, Chennai, dedicated her life to the service of cancer patients for 65 years. The Cancer Institute is recognised as a preeminent one in the country, especially for providing quality and affordable treatment to all its patients.
The Cancer Institute was founded in 1954 by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman medical graduate in the country. She’d seen her young sister die of cancer in 1923. Aware that treatments existed outside of India, she was determined to bring that level of treatment here. The Adyar Cancer Institute was the first specialised centre for cancer treatment in south India, and the second in India after the Tata Memorial Hospital in Bombay.
In a 2015, TEDxVIT Vellore talk, Dr V Shanta elaborated on the many obstacles the institute faced at the time of starting. In 1955, the centre opened with 12 beds in “Sewagram type of huts” under a thatched roof. The staff consisted of two honorary medical officers, two auxiliary nurses and one technician. She was one of the two doctors. Her first remuneration at the institute was Rs 200 a month, and she was offered residence on the campus. She moved in on April 13th, 1955, and lived in the same room on the top floor till the end. She chose to stay as close as possible to her critical patients and spurned worldly comforts.
Today, the institute can house up to 500 in-patients. Speaking about the institute’s trajectory over the decades, she said, “We’ve grown by the grace of god, but essentially through a commitment and motivation and an ethos of service. There have been many obstacles, but we’ve managed because of dedication.” Along with Dr Krishnamurthi (Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s son), she ensured that while 40 per cent are paying beds at the institute, the remaining are general beds where patients are boarded and lodged free of cost.
In her own words (in a 2005 interview to Frontline), Dr V Shanta said she hailed from a ‘fairly illustrious family’. Her grandfather was the physics Nobel laureate CV Raman and her paternal uncle Dr S Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel laureate. She grew up in her grandfather’s library and was inspired by a ‘Lady Duffrin, a medical professional, who went about in uniform, smart, independent and extremely professional,’ leaving ‘a lasting impression’ on her. In 1944, she joined the Madras Medical College. As a small built woman (and at a time when women in medicine were still rare), she was encouraged to take up obstetrics and gynaecology. She chose to be different and decided to work on cancer.
Over her long career, she has been felicitated with numerous awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and Ramon Magsaysay Award. Her death was mourned not only by the thousands who she treated and helped but also by national leaders, such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Chennai-based senior advocate NL Rajah has been associated with the Adyar Cancer Institute for over 30 years. While his first meetings with Dr V Shanta were of “client litigant” nature, over time she became “like a mother,” he says. He recalls numerous incidents with her which revealed her sacrifice, dedication and humility.
Despite her numerous felicitations, she still felt she was the “least qualified” in her family of Nobel laureates. He says, “Even in her 90s, she was remarkably fit. She’d come and meet me in my office.” When he told her that he’d come to the institute, she replied, “We professionals need to respect each other and each other’s time.” He once asked her how come he’d never seen her wearing spectacles, to which she replied with a smile, “Put it down to my vanity”. She was meeting and taking care of patients till the very end. She invested all her time and energy in trying to ensure that the best cancer care was available to all her patients. She treated all her patients with the same care and attention. NL Rajah says, “She was wedded to medicine and patient care.”