WHAT was perhaps the country's first hospital was set up over 300 years ago in Chennapatna, now Chennai. It was Governor Edward Winter who set up that hospital at Fort. St. George, for the British residents.
By 1679, the services offered by the two-bed hospital were so much in demand that a two-storeyed building was built close to the original structure. In 1690, Governor Elihu Yale inaugurated a bigger hospital, built at a cost of 2,500 pagodas (about Rs.65,000 in today's terms) on James Street within the Fort.
In 1761, a decision was apparently taken to build a permanent hospital. But it was nearly a decade before action would be taken on this decision. On October 15, 1772, the hospital was inaugurated where the Government General Hospital stands today. This structure grew into a sprawling complex with several buildings and departments added to it over time. Its main block, which is now being pulled down to make way for two new blocks, dates back to 1835.
However, the hospital became truly a "general hospital" only in 1842, when Indians were admitted as in-patients. In 1889 it became a full-fledged civilian facility. Major reconstruction was undertaken in 1928. By the 1930s, it had come to be regarded as one of the best hospitals in Asia. According to S. Muthiah, historian of the Madras Presidency, this reputation was in large measure due to the setting up in 1835 of the Madras Medical School. Among the teachers were doyens of medicine such as Dr. Rangachari, Dr. M.R. Guruswami (their statues stand on the campus of the Madras Medical College today) and Dr. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, who studied medicine abroad and returned to serve the country. The institution was granted the status of a medical college 15 years later, after which it grew from strength to strength under the guidance of some of the best minds in the field in the country.
As the population grew and with it the types of diseases, the demand for healthcare increased. Hospitals, dispensaries and primary health centres were set up all over the State to meet the demand, particularly for the poor who could not afford to pay for diagnosis, care or treatment. But the base is provided by the 300-year-old facility now simply called the GH, which has state-of-the-art facilities to treat and care for a wide range of diseases - from heart and renal ailments to cancer to HIV infection. The country's first bone bank is to be set up at the GH soon.
According to 2002 figures, the State has 326 hospitals, 208 dispensaries, 208 primary health centres and 1,410 health sub-centres, including 11 mobile medical units and one leprosy unit. There are 50,000 beds available, some 11,000 of them in Chennai. Of the nearly 10,000 government doctors in the State, nearly two-fifths are in the city.
The growth of the Madras Presidency after Independence and the financial crunch that followed the reorganisation of States, affected all government hospitals, in particular the GH. The Madras Medical College managed to retain its reputation as a top-ranking institution, thanks mainly to the excellent teachers it had, such as Dr. B. Ramamurthi and Dr. Krishnamoorthi Srinivas (neurology), Dr. T.J. Cherian (cardiology) and Dr. K.V. Thiruvengadam (general medicine).
Starved of adequate space and faced with staff shortages and infrastructure constraints, the General Hospital today is a pale shadow of what it was in the inter-War years. The main reason for this situation is the falling allocation of funds. Hardly 1.7 per cent of the State domestic product goes to healthcare, much below the World Health Organisation-recommended level of 6 per cent.
But despite its shortcomings, the GH continues to serve lakhs of poor patients - from all over and even outside the State, with the aid of modern technology.