Doctors, in print and in stone


Frederick Noronha

Doctors are in the news, and rightly so with Goa and the rest of India being badly hit by the pandemic. In such times, we cannot but help thinking of their often-overlooked role. More so, in a society where powerbrokers and undeserving others holding influential posts can be seen as demi-gods. But it’s the man (and, increasingly, the woman) behind the stethoscope that has such a crucial role to play.

We realise this only when it turns into a life-or-death situation. Interestingly, skills from Goa have played quite a significant role over history too. This is true in India, in parts of Asia, and even in places like Africa.

Their works are celebrated with statues, chapters, or sections in books, repeated references, and now online references to their work. So vast has been the contribution that it’s easy to miss out on some names.

Those were the times when doctors who contributed to the health cause got statues devoted to them – Acacio Gabriel Viegas (1856-1933) in Dhobitalao, Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936) near the GPO in Panaji, Dada Vaidya (1859-1947) in Ponda and Dr Manuel Albuquerque (1869-1956) in Anjuna.

In Zanzibar, Dr Manuel Francisco de Albuquerque won awards for fighting the plague in the Zanzibar. In September 1896, Dr Acacio Gabriel Viegas (of Arpora) has been widely praised for his role in detecting the bubonic plague.

Teresa Albuquerque, the late historian, who has written much on Bombay and Goa, comments that Bombay invited Dr Waldemar Hafkine, who was researching the plague vaccine in Calcutta, to come to Bombay to fight the epidemic. Dr Viegas is said to have “inoculated no less than 18,000 persons personally with the new serum prepared by Dr Hafkine.” He campaigned for a clean-up of parts of the city, and the extermination of rats, the main carriers of the plague.

But there were others too from here who contributed.

Luis Godinho (1865-1924) studied in Bombay, went to Europe, and with degrees from there, served in Bombay. During the plague epidemic, his services are recorded as being invaluable.

Shirley Gonsalves, in her book on the early Luso-Indian graduates of the Grant Medical College, ‘The Luso-Indian Stethoscope’, lists others too who are linked to this field. Joao Vicente Santana Barreto (b 1913) lead a committee to study sleeping sickness in Portuguese Guinea. He also wrote on Plague in Portuguese India.

José Camilo Aires da Conceicao Sa (or, Aires de Sa) played an active role in the plague campaign in Margao during the First World War. He is credited with having designed a substitute ‘Clayton type’ sulfur disinfection machine that could be manufactured locally. Another who played a role in the Margao plague was Antonio Augusto T R do Rego (1887-1972).

Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936), mentioned above, is known for eradicating the bubonic plague from Panaji in 1908, writes Gonsalves. Francisco Antonio Wolfango da Silva (1864-1947), meanwhile, played an active role in the campaign against the plague that broke out in Ribandar in the early 20th century.

There is much information out there if only we are willing to search for it, and give it the importance our history deserves.

Fatima da Silva Gracias’ book ‘Health and Hygiene in Colonial Goa 1510-1961’ offers an insight into Goa’s early encounter with Western medicine, from the Royal Hospital and the teaching of rudimentary medicine started rather early in the day in 1702.

Silva Gracias’ listing of the medical achievers – both in and out of Goa – is interesting. Some men of medicine became famous administrators, politicians, anthropologists, economists, and even rose in cultural life.

She credits Augusto Carlos de Lemos with using the precursor of “preventative quininism” as a prophylactic. Jose Antonio Valeriano Coutinho of Aldona worked in Cabo Verde to fight smallpox. There are many other, now sadly forgotten, names who contributed in significant ways.

The University of Lisboa anthropologist Cristiana Bastos has highlighted the “complex” situation of a group of Portuguese colonial subjects in Africa: the Indo-Portuguese physicians trained at the Medical School of Goa.

She notes that, under Portuguese rule, Goan physicians mostly studied at the Medical School or Escola Medica of Nova Goa, with a few training at Bombay or Portugal. She writes: “The Goa Medical School had existed since 1842, was formally recognized by the Portuguese authorities in 1847, and operated until 1961. During that period, over a thousand students graduated in medicine and pharmacy, the vast majority of them native Goans.”

Today, quite a few Goan doctors who are alumni of the Goa Medical College, have settled and are working in the United Kingdom and in other parts of the globe.

There have been other prominent examples too. Dr Wilfred de Souza, former chief minister, and a double-FRCS cum politician, once mentioned how his father – also one of the early Goan doctors in East Africa – played a larger-than-life role with village chiefs and simple folk in those parts of the globe. For entirely understandable reasons, of course: the doctor, then as now, held a life-or-death say in the lives of his patients.

Recently too, by way of the printed word, there have been autobiographies written by Goan doctors who served elsewhere in the globe.

Late Osborne Viegas was based in Singapore, and a retired professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, Monash University. In his recently-published autobiography, he talks about his experiences in four continents – Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. His cover photo shows his receiving his first medical degree from Dada Idi Amin, in the Uganda of those times, no less!

Late Dr Leo DeSouza studied at St Joseph’s Arpora, St Xavier’s Bombay and Grant Medical College. He was an FRCS peer of Dr Willy at the University of Edinburgh. After working in Tanzania and Uganda, he fled Amin’s Uganda for the US. His family has been working on his biography, titled ‘No Place For Me’.

In our times too one can still find reports of Goan doctors playing unusual and unexpected roles in diverse parts of the world. Like Dr Alan de Lima Pereira, who was not long back working to treat Ebola patients for the Medicins Sans Frontiers, about half a decade ago, while still in his late twenties.

Let’s just hope that history does more justice while recording the contributions of the men and women who healed, over years, decades and centuries.