Much has been written in the past month about Indian medical students going to distant and relatively unfamiliar countries to pursue medical studies. Many of these young students have ambitions of making a successful and prosperous career after they obtain their degrees. Here is an unusual story about an Indian doctor who went abroad, over a century ago, not in the pursuit of name and money, but to use his education and skills in the service of those who needed them the most.
Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis was born on 1 October 1910 in a middle-class family in Sholapur, Maharashtra. He grew up as one of seven children in the family, and his father had to take loans to support his children’s education. Dwarakanath moved to Bombay to pursue medical studies at the Seth GS Medical College. Possibly unlike his fellow students at that time, the young Dwarakanath’s ambition was to practise medicine in a different part of the world. And as destiny would have it, his dream took on an unexpected form.
Dwarakanath acquired his medical degree in 1938. The world was already in the throes of conflicts that would escalate into World War II. China had been invaded by in the early 1930s by the Japanese who were seeking raw materials for their growing industries. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China, and war crimes against the Chinese became commonplace. There were large scale massacres of civilians, and the Chinese resistance army suffered heavy casualties. At the same time there was an acute shortage of doctors who could attend to the injured and the dying.
It was at this time that General Zhu De, a Chinese revolutionary had written to Jawaharlal Nehru with a plea to send doctors to save the lives of the soldiers. India was in the midst of its own movement of freedom from British rule. The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to send a team of five doctors to China to show the solidarity of the people of India with the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese aggression.
There was a call for doctors to volunteer for this mission. Dwarakanath was one of those who volunteered. He was 28 years old; neither he nor his family knew much about China, but he felt an inner urge to venture beyond familiar territory to practice the subjects that he had studied, in challenging circumstances. This decision would prove to be a life-changing one.
Thus young Dr Kotnis joined the team of five Indian doctors headed for China. The other four members of the team were M Cholkar from Nagpur, BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta, and M Atal from Allahabad.
The young doctors, the first medical team from another Asian country who had volunteered help, were personally received by Mao Zedong and General Zhu De. They were plunged straight into the war zone in Northern China where mobile medical units were treating wounded soldiers. The situation was very stressful, physically and mentally. About 800 injured soldiers had to be attended to every day which meant that the doctors often worked round the clock without rest or sleep. The young doctors stood up to the challenge, saving hundreds of lives and treating thousands of wounded.
As the battle in the North subsided, the Indian team was free to return home, and four members did so. But Dr Kotnis was reluctant to return. He wanted to spend more time in a country that he was beginning to know and love, and continue to contribute to the war effort. He joined Mao-led Eighth Route Army in 1939. He continued to work tirelessly, performing operations for up to 72 hours without a break, and treating hundreds of patients, day and night. He did not return home even when he heard about his father’s death.
Years later he was remembered by the ordinary people as a kind doctor who not only helped ease their pain and suffering, but was also concerned about their basic needs. He learned to read and write Mandarin Chinese and was able to communicate with the people in their language. He became one of them. They in turn adopted him and called him Kedihua dai fu (Kedihua was Kotnis’ Chinese name and dai fu meaning doctor). He was also nicknamed “Dr Thoughtful” and “Old Ke”.
Around this time he also met Guo Qinglan who had volunteered as a nurse in the Eighth Route Army. The couple got married in December 1941.They had a son who they aptly named Yinhua; the Chinese character for Yin meant India and Hua meant China.
In 1941 Dr Kotnis was appointed as director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. Bethune was a Canadian physician and social activist who had also moved to China in 1938-39 during the Second Sino-Japanese and volunteered as a medical advisor to the 8th Route Army. He was a brilliant surgeon who not only worked on battlefields, but also helped in training medical personnel, and setting up medical programmes and hospitals to reform the health care system in China. He was deeply committed to the welfare of the poor. Dr Bethune died on the frontline, of blood poisoning in 1939, and became a national hero.
Dr Kotnis was a fit choice to carry forward the legacy of the revered Dr Bethune, who had had a similar professional path. Dr Kotnis continued to work with the same intensity and passion as he had done on the battlefield. He was also teaching medical students. As there were no textbooks he started compiling them himself. But the unrelenting stress had taken a toll on the young doctor’s health. Only three months after the birth of his son, Dr Kotnis was struck by a series of epileptic seizures that cut short his life. Even as he was writing his second surgery textbook, he collapsed, and following a seizure, died on 9 December 1942. He was just 32 years old. He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan village in China among the people he made his own.
While the work of Dr Kotnis is not as well documented or known in India, the name and legacy of Ke Dihua as he was fondly called, are still remembered and revered in China. The Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School been named after him; from which over 45000 medical professionals have graduated. There are memorials and statues of him in several towns in China.
7 April is marked as World Health Day. A good time to remember a doctor who lived his short life with complete commitment and passion for the health of all people.