The forgotten connection between Madras and smallpox eradication

As India enters a 21 day lockdown to fight coronavirus, read about the man from Madras who helped eradicate smallpox.

Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation recently said that India has tremendous capacity in eradicating the coronavirus pandemic. He cited the country’s success in handling polio and smallpox, both through targeted public intervention.

Of these, the smallpox story is directly connected to the history of Chennai, for it was here that the first decisive public intervention was done. And the man behind it was Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao, the institution being the Communicable Diseases Hospital (CDH), Tondiarpet. I have written before about him, but a repeat is still worthwhile.

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.

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. In 1959, he became its first Superintendent, a post he held till 1964. By the time he rose to that post, 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.

Now for an aside – in 2013 I was researching the history of the Corporation of Chennai, at the request of the powers-that-then-were. One of my ‘discoveries’ was Dr Ayyagari Ramachandra Rao. I thought it will be good to have a photo of him in the book and searched high and low for it. Finally, the photographer Vinay Arvind located one moth-eaten picture high up in the wall of whoever was then the chief of the CDH. He begged for it and got it on the condition that the then chief also be photographed and included in the book. Just for the sake of the photo, I agreed and we managed to capture whatever was left of Dr Rao in that pic. Back at the designer’s, Malvika Mehra did whatever she could to reconstruct his face.

The book was aborted by the powers-that-were but I was left with many delicious stories, one of these being Dr Rao. I wrote about him in The Hindu in 2014 and a niece of his called up to express her delight. She had assisted him throughout the vaccination project. Before she rung off she told me that the photo did not look anything like her uncle – Malvika’s plastic surgery had been that thorough.

This is how we treat our heroes.

(This article was originally published on the author’s blog, and can be viewed here)


  1. R Anandakumar says:

    Even though I was born and brought up in Chennai,I never knew the contribution of such a great person. Thanks for educating me.

  2. Dexter Sam says:

    Thanks for this great article. Happy to learn this new today… I’m new to Chennai and enjoyed learning about this piece of history. Hoping we can fight covid in this way too.

  3. Sujatha says:

    Extremely interesting and informative! Thank you !

  4. Mahadevan says:

    In every walks of life, some unknown legends like Dr.Rao have left their traces for betterment of human society. Truly thankful to such legends

  5. Shakira says:

    Hope supreme power would gift the world with one more Dr.Rao to save human race from covid 19

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Similar Story

Newborn screening: Why it is needed and what we must know

Newborns and their parents can benefit from a government-sponsored newborn screening programme in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu.

A national newborn screening programme, as part of the health policy, is not yet a reality in India, even though such an initiative can help in the early detection of metabolic and genetic disorders. A universal screening programme initiated by the government can go a long way in the prevention of life-threatening illnesses in children, especially in this country, where the incidence of prematurity and low birth weight is quite high. However, newborn screening is available in many private hospitals and it is important for parents to be aware and ask for these tests for their newborn. To mark International…

Similar Story

Delhi heat impact: Heat wave hits earnings, health of auto rickshaw drivers

This summer broke all temperature records, but heat affects those working outside, such as autorickshaw drivers in Delhi, much more.

As heat wave conditions prevail in Delhi and parts of north India, authorities have advised citizens to stay indoors or in the shade during the mid-day hours when the sun is the strongest and avoid strenuous activity from noon to 4 p.m., to protect themselves from heat stress-related illnesses. However, avoiding the summer heat is simply not an option for the auto drivers of Delhi as they need to continue working under these extreme conditions due to financial necessity. Their earnings are already facing a hit as fewer people are either stepping out or taking autos because of the heat.…