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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Know Your City: The ‘Jumbo Hospitals’ that British set up in Pune during the bubonic plague and why locals hated them

The city had separate plague hospitals for Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis, apart from a General Plague Hospital, managed by respective communities to address the concerns of “caste contamination”.

Written by Atikh Rashid | Pune |
Updated: January 29, 2022 9:42:50 pm
Plague hospitals were a key strategy in the British government’s fight against the pandemic.

During the ongoing pandemic, the three ‘Jumbo Hospitals’, set up in Pune District by government agencies to treat Covid-19 patients have played a key role by making available for public additional specialised care beds. In the late 1890s, when the city was ravaged by the Bubonic Plague and the health infrastructure in Pune city was minimal, the British government had adopted a similar strategy and set up as many as four ‘plague hospitals’ in Pune to treat those afflicted by the fatal pestilence.

The plague hospitals, which were a key strategy in the British government’s fight against the pandemic, were also the sites of friction between the local population and the colonial administration. As per British accounts, infected locals were extremely reluctant to get admitted to a government health facility and the only way to bring them to the medical care was to use force.

Like other measures taken in Pune to control the plague by the ‘Poona Plague Committee’, the hospitals were seen by locals with suspicion. Rumours about the hospitals — one conspiracy theory claimed the British hospital authorities were killing Indian patients to extract their livers to make medicine for the whites — made things worse. Some members of the Indian and British elite also expressed public displeasure over the management of the hospitals and lack of facilities.

The first plague hospital

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In October 1896, when the first few cases of plague were reported in the city, the patients were taken to Sassoon General Hospital (built in 1867) for treatment in its contagious diseases ward. The patients were later housed at a shed set up outside the main building to prevent other patients from catching the infection.

As the number of patients grew, authorities decided to shift to a bigger place and moved to a plot owned by Grand Peninsular Railway (GIP). Railway staffers, however, were opposed to plague patients being treated on their premises and the facility had to move again. The district magistrate then decided to build the ‘plague hospital’ near Sangam (the convergence of Mutha and Mula rivers).

The makeshift hospital was spread over an area of 15 acres and two gunthas, and was built at the joint cost of the city and suburban municipalities and the Poona Cantonment. It was opened on February 5, 1897. The facility had its own burial ground and housing for the staff and administrative officers, which at one time numbered 320, including 104 ward boys and ayahs and 59 security personnel.

In the worst phase of the pandemic, the general plague hospital had more than 1,000 inmates. The European patients were treated at Sassoon General Hospital.

A dedicated plague hospital in Mumbai.

Separate plague hospitals for Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis

To “address the issue of caste contamination” at a common hospital, the authorities set up separate hospitals which were managed by persons from within each community and supervised by British medical officers.

“…the fear of caste contamination was always great, in many apparently greater than death; for, in his own home he might die in peace and in the purity of caste that meant future happiness; but defilement by contamination with another caste meant to the poor Hindu torture and anguish in the world to come,” wrote George Lambert, an American who travelled to India in 1897 on a relief mission after reading reports of the devastation caused by famine and plague.

The Hindu Plague Hospital, set up near Lakdi Pul, was managed by a committee of Brahmins and it was open to “all Hindus except members of the low castes”. Persons admitted had to pay an admission fee of Rs 10 in addition to the maintenance charges. Dr V V Bhagwat, the visiting medical officer, directed the treatment under the supervisional charge of Surgeon-Major J P Barry.

The Mahomedan Plague Hospital which became operational on March 8, 1897, was constructed and maintained by prominent Muslims of Pune where Muslims were treated free of charge. The treatment of the plague stricken was done by a hakeem named Ainuddin who used traditional remedies. Although the patients had the option of being treated with the western medicine, none made the choice.

“In the points of cleanliness and smartness, the Mahomedan Hospital was compared unfavourably both with the General Plague Hospital and the Hindu Hospital. It has, however, been of immense value owing to the confidence it has enjoyed with practically the whole of the Mahomedan community. The majority of the patients admitted belonged to the poorer classes of Mahomedans. No one would have been surprised if this class of people had obstinately opposed the removal of their sick to hospital,” reads a report of the Poona Plague Commmittee, prepared by Chairman of Poona Plague Committee WC Rand and submitted by his successor R A Lamb after the former was assassinated in June 1897.

The Parsi Plague Hospital was situated on the side of the Old Satara Road near the rifle range. It was erected by the Parsi community at their own expense. The hospital was most well equipped among the three community hospitals and was considered a model medical facility. During the first year of its operations, the hospital received only one patient who died while being treated.

Pandita Ramabai

Pandita Ramabai’s criticism

In a letter published in The Bombay Guardian in May 1897, social reformer Pandita Ramabai shared her experience with the General Plague Hospital which severely damaged the public image of the medical facilities created by the British to deal with the plague.

As per Ramabai, who operated the orphanage Mukti Mission near Kedgaon, one of the girls from the Mission, a famine widow, was sent to the General Plague Hospital by authorities after she was found to have a fever. “We were told that none of us would be allowed to come here unless we stayed as long as the doctors thought fit. I could send no one to take care of the poor girl,” wrote Ramabai. After a while, when she inquired about the girl’s wellbeing, she was told that “the girl had died long ago”.

When Ramabai reached the hospital, the staff indicated that the girl was alive. “I desired to see her, but this morning I was told by the servant and watchman that the girl was ‘kept’ by a watchman of this hospital,” wrote Ramabai.

A proponent of women’s rights, Ramabai also criticised the facility for lack of sanitation and care.

“The filthiness of the only bathroom assigned for women living here is indescribable. Women who come here to take care of their sick relations must give up all modesty or suffer pain. Never before have I felt so mortified or put to shame but now this evil has come upon me and I have to thank the authorities for it,” she wrote, adding, “I shall never let a girl come alone to this dreadful place while I have a little strength in me.”

“There are no proper bathrooms and resting places here. The people who come here to take care of their sick friends have to suffer much. I had to lie down on the open ground all night. The pricking stones, bugs, mosquitoes, and fleas made it impossible for me to go to sleep,” she wrote.

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