Early this year, I was approached by Dr Ravi Santosham to do a book on his father, Dr Mathuram Santosham. I purely out of inertia refused only to have my father reproach me for it, citing the good doctor’s various achievements and stating that it was an opportunity to write the biography of a “good man”. So that got me going. The book was released by K Rosiah, Governor of Tamil Nadu on 21st June, Dr Santosham’s 100th birthday. I append below a brief of the life, written by K Venkatesh, who assisted me in the research of the story. The article appeared in Madras Musings dated 1st September 2013.
Dr. M. Santosham was a gifted tuberculosis specialist when the disease was at its worst, saving the lives of hundreds of people with his practical treatment and accurate diagnosis. The demands of tuberculosis care led him to establish the first private sanatorium in Madras, setting it up in the outskirts of Madras to supplement his Lung Clinic at Egmore. He made a mark in the political scene as well, first as a member of Congress and then as a founder-member of the Swatantra Party. He was a close confidant of the party’s founder, Rajaji, and was elected as the Party’s MP from Tiruchendur in 1967. Dr. Santosham was the voice of the Christian community in Madras for years, heading several of its organisations. His interests also spanned music, cartooning and writing.
William Mathuram Santosham faced difficult times as a young man. But he stayed undaunted. He was sent to Madurai along with his brothers, Wilfred and Dharmaraj, by his father, Abraham Santosha Nadar, a tahsildar, for studies. His zest for life, his booming voice and his captivating singing won him popularity during his days at American College and then at Madras Medical College (MMC) where, as a student, he is best remembered for his witty compositions and singing at functions. His political activity started at MMC when he founded the Madras Student Organisation, a student wing of Congress, but his deeper faith inspired him to spend more time with the Zion Church in Chintradipet, which was to remain a constant companion for the rest of his life. He aspired for a general medicine position after completing his medical studies as a 24-year-old in 1937, but, his political activities having been noticed, he was asked to intern at the TB I nstitute. This was to prove a blessing in disguise.
TB was then a dreaded disease and was almost a death-feared disease. Dr. Santosham’s combination of compassion and expertise won him the hearts of tuberculosis patients and his small practice grew by leaps and bounds. In 1938, the front portion of a rented house on Egmore High Road became a Lung Clinic, a small four-bed facility. The poor patients were treated for free and stories abound about him giving money to patients to buy medicines. The clinic was later developed into a full-fledged hospital and still functions as the Santosham Chest Hospital. Dr. Santosham, who was a member of Indian Army Corps, served the civil defence’s Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wing during the War in 1942. He was up to any challenge and never backed off, so much so that he operated on a goat first to learn surgery skills and, in later life when the suction pump failed during an operation, he himself sucked out the fluid, little worried about co ntracting TB.
Another tussle with the administration forced him to quit government service and start his own private practice. Dr. Titus – a compounder from Trivandrum who came to MMC to formally study medicine – found his colleague Dr. Santosham to be a suitable match for his daughter Susheela, and the marriage was solemnised in 1944. Susheela got a hint of Dr. Santosham’s commitment to his profession when he rushed to attend to a bleeding patient while she waited for him to come back and take his marriage vows. The couple enjoyed a full life and grew a happy family of three boys – Rajan, Ravi and Roy – and two girls – Renuka and Ranjani.
Offering further hope to TB patients, Dr. Santosham decided to treat tuberculosis patients at a secluded facility that could provide the recommended TB treatment with fresh air and complete rest. He established the first private TB sanatorium, named after his late father A. Santosha Nadar, in 1946, acquiring 10 acres of land at Selaiyur, near Tambaram. The sanatorium took a life of its own and developed into a full-fledged facility with a poultry farm, kitchen, and graded accommodation for patients. Ten per cent of the patients were treated for free and the sanatorium’s doors remained open to all patients suffering from TB, irrespective of whether they could afford the costs or not. A resident doctor, support staff, and administration manager made it a self-sufficient TB care unit.
Dr. Santosham, with the objective of spreading awareness, wrote a book on TB. He then enrolled for postgraduate studies abroad to learn more sophisticated treatment methods and surgery techniques. With TB’s treatment advancing to the level of being treated at home, the sanatorium lost prominence after a 30-year life of enviable success. The space was then transferred for a nominal sum to his friend Dr. G.D. Boaz to run a psychiatric centre.
The political fortunes of Dr. Santosham stood in contrast to his medical practice, swinging from one extreme to another. He always remained staunch to his principles and was never put off by any setback. He believed in being clean and honest in politics, and his cheerful disposition won him friends across the political spectrum. Early electoral forays in mayoral elections in 1949 and Assembly elections in Perambur in 1952 ended in disaster. Dr. Santosham was then attracted to Rajaji’s plank of politics in the Congress. His initial rapport with Kamaraj became strained as a result. The factional divide between Kamaraj and Rajaji denied him what should have been a cakewalk in the 1957 mayoral elections. Kamaraj’s choice for mayor, Dr. Tara Cherian, beat Dr. Santosham by seven votes and the relationship with Kamaraj eroded further. When Rajaji broke from Congress to form the Swatantra Party in 1958, Santosham was to become on e of the party’s strongest pillars in Madras State. He always had the ear of Rajaji and became his trusted companion. Intellectual compatibility brought them even closer. Mentor Rajaji thus became an integral part of Dr. Santosham’s political life till the very end of Rajaji’s life.
The fight at the hustings bore fruit for Dr. Santosham in 1967 when the Swatantra Party formed an alliance with the DMK in the parliamentary elections. This alliance won him friendships with M. Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran and a host of Dravidian party leaders of the time. Riding on an anti-Congress wave, Dr. Santosham defeated Congress strongman K.T. Kosalram, although by a thin margin and much to the surprise of political observers, and became an MP. He spoke eloquently on various issues in Parliament, the most significant one being the necessity for government to provide quality health care throughout the country. Later, shifting political fortunes led to the Swatantra Party joining the coalition led by Kamaraj’s Congress (O) in the 1971 elections and Dr. Santosham’s strained relationship with Kamaraj now turned friendly. But the alliance was no match for the rising popularity wave of the DMK. With the passing away o f Rajaji in 1972, it was also the death knell of the Swatantra Party, high on intellectual appeal and low on popular attraction.
Dr. Santosham was closely associated with Christian organisations such as the Indian Christian Association (ICA), Indian Missionary Society (IMS), and YMCA. He was president of the ICA three times and constantly appealed to parties forming governments to give a fair representation to Christians in their cabinets. His appeal to the DMK government in 1975 to treat Christian Harijans on par with Hindu Harijans won the government’s consent. He is credited with invigorating the YMCA Family Club, a small vibrant group consisting of thirty Christian families, formed in 1956 to forge close relationships between them. As president of the Club, Dr. Santosham was the soul of the group whose members regularly met to socialise. Music was in his soul, and he composed a Cantata (text composition set to music) titled ‘Redemption’.
He remained on the fringes of the political scene thereafter, aligning with the Lok Dal and Janata Dal as State unit president in the final phase of his life. He was also instrumental in getting the DMK into the National Front led by V.P. Singh, which formed the government at the Centre in 1989. Prime Minister V.P. Singh offered him the position of a governor, but Dr. Santosham politely declined citing his failing health. The same day, January 30, 1991, he passed away. On the occasion of his birth centenary (June 21, 2013), his biography Goodness and Mercy: Life and Times of Dr. Mathuram Santosham, authored by V. Sriram, was released.