Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao
Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao

Summer may pack in a whole host of problems but we must be thankful that smallpox is no longer one of them. Right till the 1960s, despite rigorous vaccination campaigns, this deadly illness would repeatedly strike at Chennai’s populace during summer, killing several and leaving many others scarred or blinded for life. The credit for its eradication goes largely to the Communicable Diseases Hospital (CDH) run by the Corporation of Madras at Tondiarpet and to Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao, who was its first Superintendent between 1959 and 1964.

Dr Rao, who was with the Health Department of the Corporation, had a long stint with the CDH, which, in his time, was known as the Infectious Diseases Hospital. By the time he rose to be its Superintendent, he, according to his own account, had handled over 30,000 cases of smallpox. Under his guidance, a smallpox virus laboratory was set up at the CDH, which soon began attracting research scholars from across the world.

Between 1952 and 1960, the lab and the CDH under Dr Rao, played an important role in assisting Dr Henry Kempe of the University of California in developing a more effective vaccine against smallpox. Dr Kempe was nominated for the Nobel Prize for this.

Back at the CDH, Dr Rao put the new serum to good use. By a study of the past records at the CDH, he arrived at the conclusion that smallpox occurred in three-year cycles, the first year being the most virulent. Having seen an outbreak in 1960, he prepared himself for 1963. His first step was simple – he insisted that any patient being admitted to the CDH, irrespective of the disease he or she was suffering from, had to be compulsorily vaccinated for smallpox. This prevented the infection spreading from smallpox patients to others in the campus.

The second step was revolutionary and controversial. World over, it was the considered opinion of experts that smallpox vaccine was ineffective in protecting infants. Dr Rao differed and insisted that any baby being delivered in a Government hospital in the city be vaccinated. Promoted as Assistant Health Officer and later Chief Health Officer of the Corporation, Dr Rao was able to carry on his campaign throughout the city. Children between the ages of one and three were also compulsorily vaccinated. The results were amazing. The number of cases of smallpox among infants in 1964 was practically non-existent. By one of those interesting coincidences, it was exactly 200 years after Dr Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination for smallpox. There were no epidemics thereafter in the city.

His work received international acclaim and Dr Rao became an advisor to the WHO, travelling extensively across the world to help fight smallpox. In 1972, he wrote a detailed account of his experiences. By 1979, thanks to people like him, the WHO declared smallpox an illness of the past. This year marks the 50 anniversary of Dr Rao’s and the CDH’s first success in Madras.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 21, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.