Never Say Die: A Tribute to Dr. V. Shanta

A Tribute on Republic Day to Builders of our Institutions of Excellence

The story of Dr. V. Shanta (1927-2021), is the story of The Cancer Institute, Adyar. For her, the institute and its mission were everything. She admitted that work was her only interest,  that she was not social, had few friends, and did not keep in touch with those she had! So tied up was her life to the Institute that when she felt unwell a few days before her death, she said to those around her: “If I die, sprinkle my ashes all over the institute. I don’t want to leave this hospital,”

She joined the Institute in 1955, just a year after it was founded by another remarkable lady, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Dr. Shanta served there till she passed away last week at the age of 93, still seeing patients and managing the institute as Chairperson. Dr. Shanta, who was related to two of India’s Noble Laurates (Dr. CV Raman and Dr. S Chandrashekar), was a Magsaysay Award recipient (2005) and a Padma Vibhushan (2015).

Her Magsaysay citation mentions: “In an era when specialised medical care in India has become highly commercialised, Dr Shanta strives to ensure that the Institute remains true to its ethos, ‘Service to all’. Its services are free or subsidised for some 60 percent of its 100,000 annual patients […] 87-year-old Shanta still sees patients, still performs surgery and is still on call twenty-four hours a day.”

Adyar Cancer Institute was only the second comprehensive cancer centre in India. It pioneered many areas of cancer care, becoming the first in the country to set up a Nuclear Medical Oncology Department; to set up a Medical Physics Department; to set up a Pediatric Oncology Department; to start a Medical Oncology Unit; carry out the country’s first rural cancer survey; create the first super-specialty course in oncology in India; set up the first cancer registry..and many, many more.

While it stays at the cutting edge of medical developments related to cancer, the core of the Institute is its Mission to provide quality care for every patient, irrespective of their ability to pay. In fact, of the 535 beds in the hospital, only 40% are fully-paid beds; 20% patients pay a nominal amount; 40% beds are free, where not only do patients not pay for treatment, but boarding and lodging is free too–living up to its Mission ‘To provide state of art to any cancer patient irrespective of his or her economic status.’

This was the lifework of Dr. Shanta, along with Dr. S. Krishnamurthi, son of the founder Dr. Muthulakshmi.

May the legacy of Dr. Muthulakshmi and Dr. Shanta continue to live on, and may their dream of a world free of suffering and pain come true!

–Meena

In memory of my father, Shri A. Nagaratnam, one of the country’s early Medical Physicists, who had the privilege of professional interactions with Dr. Shanta.

Father Valles, whom Mamata wrote about a few weeks ago in ‘The Mathematical Priest’ has been bestowed posthumously with the Padma Shri. A fitting tribute indeed.

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