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HIV, polio, now Covid — How CMC Vellore has been leading healthcare & research for 121 yrs

First open heart surgery, first detection of HIV in blood sample, first reconstructive surgery for leprosy, first bone marrow transplant — CMC Vellore has long list of firsts in medical health.

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New Delhi: India’s year-and-a-half battle with the raging coronavirus has mostly counted government institutes as its valiant soldiers.

But in the group of ICMR, AIIMS, NIV Pune, CDL Kasauli or CCMB Hyderabad, one private institute stands head and shoulders above in its contribution — the Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Doctors Jayprakash Muliyil, T. Jacob John, Priya Abraham, Gagandeep Kang — the standard-bearers for Covid research — are all from this Tamil Nadu institute set up 121 years ago.

The pandemic aside, CMC’s stamp on India’s medical care and innovations has been formidable.

T. Jacob John, celebrated virologist and retired professor at the Christian Medical College, ran out of breath as he spoke of the institute’s pioneering achievements to ThePrint.

The first open heart surgery in India, the first detection of HIV in a blood sample, the first reconstructive surgery for leprosy in the world, the first bone marrow transplant in India and the first polio-free village in the country… the list goes on.

Despite being a 3,000-bed facility, the underlying spirit of the CMC, according to those who worked at the institute, has been the same over a century — to make healthcare and healthcare education accessible to the less privileged.

Also read: Meet Gagandeep Kang, Shimla scientist who’s helping save lives of thousands of Indian kids

The history: CMC is the fruit of an American woman’s vision

On a fateful night in 1894, three harried men separately knocked on the door of Christian missionary and doctor, John Scudder, in Tindivanam in present-day Tamil Nadu.

The desperate men wanted help for their pregnant wives, who were critical in labour.

Unfortunately, prevalent social norms over a hundred years ago did not allow a male doctor to treat women patients in that region. That meant Scudder’s untrained daughter Ida could only see the would-be mothers.

All three women died in childbirth that night — a tragedy that deeply impacted the 24-year-old, propelling her to seek a career in medicine.

Ida S. Scudder’s mission was to make quality healthcare affordable to the women of India.

After completing her education in the US, she came back in 1900 and set up a small hospital in Vellore — to teach medicine to women.

The granddaughter of the first American medical missionary, Dr John Scudder, Ida taught the first batch of seventeen herself.

Over the years and decades that followed, Ida Scudder’s small hospital grew in stature to become the leading light in modern India’s healthcare system — the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore.

Ida Scudder's portrait at the Heritage Centre on the CMC campus in Vellore | Photo:
Ida Scudder’s portrait at the Heritage Centre on the CMC campus in Vellore | Photo:

‘Mission, passion, service’

The private, Christian community-run medical school, hospital and research institute has always been at the centre of topical discourses, like Covid.

From studying the virus to researching cure, CMC’s doctors have kept pace with government institutions like ICMR, AIIMS and NIV Pune, among others.

Muliyil, one of India’s foremost epidemiologists and currently the chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Epidemiology, was among those who started the first course of epidemiology in India at CMC Vellore in 1992.

The doctor is indebted to the CMC’s support for his education at a time when his family could not afford the fees.

While he was working in the community health department, the institute also gave Muliyil an opportunity to be trained in epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins University at Baltimore, US.

“One thing the university does very meticulously is to train staff whenever it can, usually sending them to a foreign university to bring in subjects that did not exist in the CMC,” he said.

This is the reason why CMC has a long list of ‘firsts’ in medical health, senior doctors said.

T. Jacob John told ThePrint that faculty and students share healthy equity and a sense of respect for each other. “This goes a long way in keeping the institute ahead in research,” he said.

“When HIV was a huge crisis in the West, I thought it could never come to India because we did not have homosexual people. However, a post-graduate student changed my thinking.”

CMC Vellore was the first institute in India that screened blood samples for the HIV virus — and the country’s first HIV positive sample was examined under the aegis of John, who was then the director of the virology department.

Like Muliyil, John was also able to train in virology — an understudied field in India — thanks to the CMC’s policy of giving faculty extended leave to study abroad.

During a four-year leave from the CMC, John studied microbiology in the UK and the US — despite the fact that his primary interest until then had been paediatrics.

His education put John on the forefront of one of India’s success stories — its polio immunisation programme. John’s pulse polio programme made Vellore the first polio-free town in India.

From a small lab run by one person, the virology department has now expanded to five full-time faculty members, he said.

The “Christian spirit of healing”, the philosophy of not profiting from medicine and a nurturing environment set the CMC Vellore apart from other institutions in India, John added.

“Christianity is full of messages about healing, and that passion drove early missionaries. Today, that message continues to pervade the CMC community,” he said.

Former CMC principal Muliyil said health is a “very peculiar profession”. “Doctors make money when someone is ill. This oddity is highlighted at the institution. We are made to ponder whether one wants to make money from people’s misfortune or whether one wants to be a guardian angel,” he said.

Muliyil added that this abiding narrative has produced “very few private practitioners from the CMC”.

The top doctor also said low salaries strain out those who want to earn more. He said: “There is a kind of selection bias. The salaries paid here are relatively low. So, people who want a better standard of living choose not to work at the CMC.”

“Commitment and passion to serve”, that is what CMC looks for in people associated with it, Muliyil added.

Also read: Woman scientist who took over at NIV just before Covid hit India & how she’s handling the crisis

Annual tuition fees: Rs 3,000 for MBBS students, Rs 400 for PG   

At a time when healthcare education is hugely commercialised, CMC has maintained low fee for students.

Dr John Victor Peter, the current director of CMC, said the annual tuition fee for MBBS students is Rs 3,000. For postgraduate students, the annual tuition fee is Rs 400.

Other charges, including library and hostel fees, cost up to Rs 40,00 a year for an undergraduate student, he told ThePrint.

Muliyil added: “This is a statement to students. This education is being gifted to them. And they are told that they are a gift to others.”

The bond shared between professors and students is strong and informal.

From the moment a student enters the campus, he is “made to feel as though he owns the place”, Muliyil said.

John said students could meet professors at their campus homes at any time. “Professors here are like foster parents,” he said.

Apart from Muliyil and John, two other names have been at the forefront of the Covid pandemic — Gagandeep Kang and Priya Abraham — both affiliated with CMC.

Gagandeep Kang is the first Indian woman scientist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and Priya Abraham is director, NIV Pune.

Abraham was with the CMC when the NIV Pune director’s post fell vacant. “ICMR chief Balram Bhargava was struggling to find a new director after Dr D T Mourya’s term ended in July of 2019,” John said.

“A professor from CMC suggested Priya Abraham’s name for the post. She did not want to leave the CMC, but has been granted three years to serve at NIV,” he said.

According to John, Abraham’s appointment as the director of NIV could not have come at a more opportune time. Abraham was appointed just two months before the country detected its first Covid case.

Meanwhile, Kang is vice-chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) — a global collaboration that ensures equitable vaccine distribution. In the past, she has been part of the team that made the indigenous rotavirus vaccine.

She too was granted a four-year leave to serve as director of Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad.

Other notable names from the CMC include Prathibha Varkey, named president of Mayo Clinic Health System; Mammen Chandy, who performed in CMC the first bone marrow transplant for thalassemia in India; and Usha Menon, a gynaecologist voted Asian Woman of the Year, 2006.

Virologist T. Jacob John is most chuffed with the appointment of Priya Abraham as NIV Pune head. “Just imagine… if the CMC was not diligently training and nurturing its staff, NIV — which is the backbone of India’s Covid research — may have been without a director when the crisis hit India,” he signed off.

Also read: Meet Gagandeep Kang, Shimla scientist who’s helping save lives of thousands of Indian kids


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