Assam connection

A tea estate in Assam boasts of its association with Ronald Ross, claiming that his discovery of the malarial parasite happened at its hospital laboratory.

Published : Feb 13, 2022 06:00 IST

Ronald Ross.

Ronald Ross.

ASSAM is synonymous with tea gardens. One of its tea gardens basks in the reflected glory of Ronald Ross. A closer look reveals a problem with the story.

Labac tea estate, situated approximately 30 kilometres from Silchar in southern Assam, is one of the oldest in the region. Colonial-era buildings with sloping roofs dot its campus. The hospital on the grounds happens to be one of the largest medical facilities in the area. What catches one’s attention is not its antiquity but the legend on the signboard with an extraordinary claim: The British medical doctor Roland Ross, who won the Nobel Prize (for Physiology or Medicine in 1902) for discovering the malarial parasite, had spent one year at Labac.

Ross had apparently discovered the connection between the Anopheles mosquito and the spread of malaria while he was working in the Labac estate.

There are so many legends around Ross and his discovery that this story does not come as a surprise. Ross had worked in several places and laboratories in the subcontinent. The Indian Medical Service had sent Ross to various parts of the country to provide medical help during malaria outbreaks. It was during his posting at Secunderabad that Ross was supposed to have made a breakthrough in his discovery on August 20, 1897. Subsequently, he proved his case in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with malaria in birds, wrapping up his grand discovery. The ‘place’ of his discovery is still a matter of debate. The Teacher Eligibility Test conducted in 2014 by the West Bengal Board of Primary Education contained a choice-based question on the place of Ross’ discovery. The options given were Calcutta and Secunderabad. The debate sparked by this resulted in an intervention by the High Court.

Estate’s claim

Labac tea estate staked its claim. Reports written by doctors of the estate state that Ross had worked in the clinic in 1898-99. Apparently, he had been invited by the chief medical officer to investigate a malaria and Kala-azar epidemic in the region. The hospital has a microscope, whose ownership is ascribed to Ross and preserved with veneration. A search on the Internet throws up many articles, blogs and even newspaper articles, as also Wikipedia pages, connecting Ross with this tea estate.

What is puzzling is that in his memoirs Ross does not mention his stay in Assam. He did travel to Assam in 1898, but his visit lasted only six weeks. He spent time in central Assam visiting tea gardens near Nagaon and Tezpur. There was an outbreak of Kala-azar in Assam at that time, and the British government had dispatched him there on an emergency mission to stop the spread of the disease. There was confusion regarding the true nature of Kala-azar. The prevailing notion among doctors was that it was a variant of malaria. Even Ross initially subscribed to this view but changed his opinion later.

He wrote a report after returning from Assam. There is no mention of his visit Silchar in it. According to the report, he reached Guwahati on September 11, 1898. After one and a half months there, he returned to Calcutta and left for England on February 22, 1899. This does not leave any scope for a year-long visit to Labac. If, perhaps, he had gone there at the personal invitation of his friend, Graham Ramsay, as it is claimed, then he may not have mentioned it in his formal report.

This hypothesis does not hold water as Ramsay was only 10 years old in 1898 and he was not present in Labac then. If Ramsay’s life and work had been examined, the weak link in the story of Ross and Labac would have been exposed. Ramsay became a distinguished researcher in his own right and was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind prize by the British government. The obituary published in The British Medical Journal after his death states that the Scottish doctor was born in 1888 and that he joined the Labac hospital in 1912. When the First World War broke out, he went to West Asia to join the team of Colonel Thomas Lawrence (more famous as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’).

Diseases among tea workers

Upon his return to Silchar in 1919, he worked on various diseases common among tea workers. He wrote a number of papers, including one on hookworm infection owing to pig rearing by coolies. Another paper dealt with yaws, an infectious disease marked by red spots on the skin, which earned him the M.D. degree from Edinburgh University in 1924. Ramsay was also concerned about preventive measures against malaria in the tea gardens. Naturally, he was interested in Ross’ work. He got to meet him once, in 1927. Ross had travelled to Assam that year from London, to assess the measures taken against malaria in eastern India and South-East Asia. Sir Malcolm Watson in Malay and Colonel John W.D. Megaw of the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine had invited Ross to inspect the work on malaria in these regions. Megaw had expressed a wish for Ross to be present during the inauguration of a gate at the laboratory in which Ross had once worked.

Ross might have yearned to travel to India. He was unhappy with the British government for delaying his pension arrangements, even though he had won the Nobel Prize and founded the Ross Institute in London. In 1927, after returning to London, Ross auctioned his laboratory instruments to raise funds. There may have been another reason for his interest in going to India. His younger brother Halford Ross was in Assam at that time. Halford had worked at the Panama Canal to prevent water stagnation so that the malarial mosquito did not breed quickly. The British government sent him to Assam on the basis of his Panama experience. A news item in The London Times stated that Halford was in Assam until September 1927. Ross does not mention any meeting with his brother.

Ross spent some time in Malay on his way to India. He arrived in Calcutta on January 3, 1927, via Penang. He stayed with Colonel Megaw, attended a dinner with Lord Lytton on January 5 and on January 7 participated in the commemoration of the gate at his erstwhile laboratory in the Calcutta General Hospital. Ross was handed a donation of Rs.550 towards the Ross Institute at a large meeting on January 11. That evening he boarded a train to north Bengal. Owners of the Dooars tea garden wanted him to inspect the malaria prevention work there. He met them at Jalpaiguri on January 18.

Inspects Ramsay’s work

From there he went to Amingaon station by train, where he embarked on a steamer bound for Jorhat in upper Assam. After a conference with tea garden owners and doctors there, he boarded a train for Silchar on January 25. Ramsay received him the next day and hosted him for that night at Labac. “Arrived Silchar 7 pm. Stayed with Dr and Mrs G.C. Ramsay,” Ross wrote in his report titled “Malaria Control in Malay and Assam”. He inspected Ramsay’s work in the nearby tea gardens the next morning, which greatly impressed him. Going by the popular accounts of his co-workers, it was not easy to impress Ross. By then, Ramsay had dissected almost 50,000 mosquitoes, a record of some sort. Ramsay’s work on the growth of Anopheles in Assam’s tea gardens was admired by his peers. It was natural that Ramsay was considered for the director’s post at the Assam branch of the Ross Institute later.

Ross gave a lecture at the Silchar Club on January 26. A dinner had been arranged at the adjacent Surma Valley Light Horse Mess. The next day, Ross returned via a steamer in Goaland (in present-day Bangladesh).

This is the real history. Ross stayed at the Labac tea garden only for a night. This visit has been transformed into folklore and blown out of proportion to claim that Ross was awarded the Nobel on account of his work there. Ramsay must have showed Ross some specimens with his microscope on January 26, 1927, and this instrument has now been dubbed as the “Ross microscope” in the collective memory in Labac.

Myths are commonplace in the history of science, especially in the case of famous discoveries. Take for example, the story of Galileo dropping two cannon balls, one heavy and another light, from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Latter-day historians did not find any mention by Galileo or his contemporaries of this incident. The story gained currency after his death. A boy named Viviani used to attend to Galileo during his house arrest and worked as his secretary. One comes across a mention of this incident for the first time in Viviani’s biography of Galileo written in 1717, almost 75 years after Galileo’s death, casting doubt on the veracity of this event.

Perhaps the Labac clinic’s claim went through a similar trajectory.

Biman Nath is Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru. Somava Biswas is a freelance writer.

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