On the occasion Malaria Day (April 25), marked across the world to focus on efforts to rid humanity of this scourge, here is a short sketch of the life of Sir Ronald Ross, who made a life- mission of cracking the puzzle of the spread of malaria.
From: ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’. V. Raghunathan, Veena Prasad. Harper Collins.
Ronald Ross was born in 1857 – the year of Indian Mutiny — in Almora, to Campbell Ross an army officer. When ten, he was sent home to England for his schooling. Ronald was an average student, interested more in composing music and writing poems and plays than in academics. But his father would have none of it and forced Ronald into taking up medical studies, threatening to stop his money if he did not!
Young Ronald respected and trusted his father enough to give up his own ambitions and in 1875 ended up at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, in Smithfield, London to study medicine. This was the oldest hospital in all Europe, established in 1123, and then re-founded by King Henry VII in 1546. The hospital occupies its original grounds even today.
Completing his medical studies, Ronald Ross landed up at Bombay on 23rd October, 1880 to join the Indian Medical Service in the army the following year.
Ronald, thanks to his mediocre performance in the LSA examination, was at first relegated to the Madras Services, considered the least attractive of the three presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Then he was posted as acting Medical In-Charge to the 17th Madras Infantry for six months at Vizianagaram. Later Ronald would reminisce about his life in Vizianagaram as being “better than the home life of a professional man in England”.
He soon was sent to the Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta where his early work on mosquitoes took shape. Visitors to Kolkata can still find the beautiful red brick Hospital within a stone’s throw of the Victoria Memorial. Today, it houses the Post Graduate Medical Education and Research Centre. The hospital, built in 1707, was probably the first hospital ever built in Kolkata, and was initially meant only for the British army. It was probably only after 1770 that the hospital was thrown open to the non-Europeans.
Malaria: The Mother of All Killers
In ancient times, it was assumed that malaria spread through bad air; hence the name mal-aria – Italian for bad air. Perhaps malaria and humanity evolved around the same time, somewhere in Africa (fossils of mosquitoes as old as 30 million years old have been found). It probably came to be recognized as a disease as early as 4000 B.C.
Malaria has killed millions over the centuries. Fortuitously, at the turn of the sixteenth century, Peruvian Indians found a cure f in the bitter bark of the Cinchona tree. By mid-seventeenth century the bark reached England, where quinine – the toxic alkaloid extracted from the bark – was used for the benefit of victims suffering from “agues”.
Quinine notwithstanding, as late as the turn of nineteenth century, the British Army in India which at the time had a strength of about 180,000 men, some 75,000 were found to be suffering from malaria. In 1897 alone, an estimated 5 million Indians would succumb to malaria. In 1935, about 1 million Indians died of malaria.
Ronald’s Medical Career in India Unfolds
Following his transfer to the Presidency Hospital, Ronald spent the next seven years in Calcutta, though from here was constantly being shunted to various other places including Calcutta, Bangalore, Burma and the Andaman Islands. His experience in Madras and Calcutta presidencies undoubtedly brought him close to the strange battlefields in which thousands of soldiers suffered at the hands of an enemy called malaria. Ronald an inquisitive and dogged mind which he would bring to bear on solving the mysteries of malaria.
Some kind of association of mosquitoes with certain diseases was not entirely unknown. For instance, only five years before, around 1878, one Patrick Manson had discovered that mosquitoes could be hosting the parasites responsible for filaria. Around 1880, another scientist, Charles Lavarean, had shown that the malaria parasite must in all probability lie outside the human body.
Since both mosquitoes and malaria are abundant where bad air prevailed, mosquito was beginning to emerge as a seriously shortlisted suspect in relation to malaria, and if, as Lavarean had shown, malaria probably had an external carrier, the mosquito was the the prime suspect– and the mosquito-malaria hypothesis was born.
In 1883 Ronald Ross built a small residence at Mahanad village on the Bandel-Burdwan line, and housed a little laboratory there. He would frequent this house every now and then journeying from Calcutta on mosquito-collecting forays to Mahanad and nearby villages, rich in mosquitoes, and peer into the innards of the pests for hours in his makeshift lab, trying to make the link with malaria in some way.
His work was interrupted when he was transferred to Bangalore as Acting Garrison Surgeon. Here he was attached to the well-known St. John’s Hospital. For most, the transfer would have been excuse enough to let the study he had commenced in Calcutta to be disrupted. But not for Ronald Ross, who seems to have found a mission in life – to solve the puzzle that mal air, mosquito and malaria together seemed to present.
In Bangalore, Ronald, still only in his twenties, found his living quarters quite acceptable, though he could hardly relax here, what with the buzz of mosquitoes forever assaulting the eardrums. He noticed too that his own quarters seemed to be a more attractive destination of for these mosquitoes than the adjoining ones. The specific beacon to which the mosquitoes were drawn seemed to be an old drum with some stagnant water, near one of the windows. A closer inspection into the contents of the barrel revealed a mass of tiny grubs writhing in the water.
A very basic demonstration of cause-effect relationship between stagnant water and mosquitoes seems to have revealed itself to Ronald.
Ronald would take the lead from here and work on and on to study the malaria parasite – the grubs – all the way through their life cycle. Such was his diligence and sincerity of purpose that he spent his own money and earned leave to go collecting mosquitoes for his studies, because research into Malaria was not part of his official responsibility!
His laborious exertions through 1880s and 90s, would ultimately prove the precise mosquito-malaria hypothesis, resulting in his winning the Nobel prize in 1911. Ross became Kolkata’s first Nobel Laureate (also the United Kingdom’s first, and the first laureate to be born outside of Europe).
With his growing fame and influence, it was only a matter of time before his admirers set up a prestigious Institution in his honour. Ross Institute and Hospital of Tropical Diseases and Hygiene was set up in London and Ronald Ross appointed its President for life. He also remained the President of the Society of Tropical Medicine.
In fact his fame had spread far and wide. There were few countries with scientific culture where Ronald had not been honoured for his many contributions. His was an extraordinary story of the triumph of perspiration over inspiration.