‘Trailblazer,’ autobiography on Dr Mary Poonen Lukose is a class apart

trailblazer
Not many are aware of the contribution of Dr Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1976) to the field of medicine and medical education in Kerala.
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Autobiographies in these days of hyped and glitzy book launch events are often used by its authors to create an ‘image’ and pitchfork themselves as celebrities. ‘Trailblazer’ by and on Dr Mary Poonen Lukose stands apart, both for the reason of the very structure of the book and, the manner in which the contents have been presented. A combination of the path breaking life and experiences of the very first Surgeon General of the erstwhile state of Travancore, and reminiscences of her immediate family ( son, K.P. Lukose daughter-in-law, Aley Lukose), and leading personalities K P S Menon, independent India’s first Foreign Secretary , and Dr C O Karunakaran, the founder of the Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, it is the story of the woman who had the vision and the drive to strike out on a path not taken in her times.

Even as the young Mary persevered to attain her personal goals she also was well aware that she could and must make a difference to the womenfolk in her land if her education had to be meaningful. Transform she did the medical facilities that were available to the common man in Travancore. Admirable it is that she chose to come back to Travancore rather than pursue a career in England where she had gone for medical education and then continued to work.

The early part of the book is the Doctor’s account of her life, an idea which took seed when the All India Radio broadcast a talk by her. The response to the talk from a cross section of listeners and exhortations from well-wishers and family prompted her to pen her life story. Thus we have ‘My 86 years from 1886 – A random look backwards’, which takes us from her birth in 1886 to 1916.

Very early in the book you know that her role model and inspiration was her father, T E Poonen, who started life as a teacher in the Madras Christian College, Madras, and then, went to England to qualify in Medicine. The spark in the young Mary revealed very early: a student of the Holy Angels’ Convent in Trivandrum she secured a distinction for the Matriculation and she continued to excel. Perseverance was her middle name. Taking up Science for her degree was not something the then Principal of Maharaja’s College, Dr Mitchell was in favour of and the young Mary towed the line, never giving up her ambition to go for medicine. In her own words she recalls the towering influence was in her life, “As I grew up, he made it a point to instill into me the spirit of service of humanity….he used to say,’ My child, you have come to have certain advantages and privileges which other girls around us have not. Remember, therefore, that you have responsibilities also.’ “

Mary Poonen was a woman of substance is evident from the manner in which mainstreamed herself while in England. Be it as a student at the Royal Free Hospital-School of Medicine for Women or her enrolling in the Student Christian Movement, the Hockey Club, Tennis Club and Boat Club, or her sightseeing trips to Scotland, the Lake District or frequenting the theatre in London to watch Shakespearean plays, she allowed herself the experience of things beyond her medical education.

As one flips through the pages we see Mary in Dublin at the Rotunda Hospital, coping with the increasing work load created by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. When her father passes away in 1916, Mary is lost. She has to take a call. Does she continue in England where opportunities were aplenty or to return home to pass on the benefits of modern medicine to the less fortunate women in her country. And that is the course of action she chose.

‘Trailblazer’ as a biography would have remained incomplete, and the reader less informed, but for the inclusion of contribution from those who knew the Doctor intimately, both as a mother, mother-in-law etc., and as a medical professional. Mary’s dedication and the progressive Travancore royal family came together as a blessing to facilitate improved medical facilities and care for women and children. Those were times when women from well-to-do homes relied on the traditional midwife for their maternity needs. A whole mindset needed to change.

Travancore has a history of forward-looking maharajas and maharanis. Things started looking up for the young doctor with dreams in her eyes when the Senior Maharani, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi became the Regent of Travancore. Within months Dr Mary Poonen Lukose was appointed the Head of the Medical Department of Travancore and soon enough nominated as a Member of the Legislative Council, making her the first woman to reach the Council.

What was the difference this young doctor make in the lives of the common man? The change was there for all to see. Patients used to flee hospital wards out of fear of surgery. Women from the upper classes allowed to use a hospital for the birth of a baby. It changed. And how? When the Amma Maharani decided to requisition the services of Dr Mary Pooonen for her maternity needs, the message percolated to the lowest levels of the population. The number of in-patients rose from 15 to 300 per day, maternity cases rose to 3000 a year from a poor 100, and operations to 1000 a year. The first C-section was performed in 1920 on Mary a resident of Kundamankadav!

While the continuity in the book would have snapped if it had only drawn on Dr Mary Poonen’s writings, the completeness comes with the initiative taken by Malayala Manorama to produce a book that would throw light on this remarkable woman drawing on archival information to knit the work together. In this context the chapter ‘Dr Mary Poonen Lukose – An Eventful Life’ by Leena Chandran gives a c a comprehensive account of this illustrious achiever who became the first Surgeon General.

A brave and committed woman, rarely does she come through as a woman who feels she has lost out because she was born a woman. Yes, there are parts where she says she could not take Science in College because the Principal felt the subject was not for women, or an appointment that may not come her way because of her gender. But, she never let any of this put her on the back foot. Living through a momentous phase in world history and Indian history she earned her place under the sun by sheer merit and dedication to her chosen profession.

The recollections of the nonagenarian daughter-in-law of Dr Mary Poonen, Aley Lukose have drawn the reader closer to the humaneness of the Doctor. She is described thus in the acknowledgements section – ‘Ninety-one year old Mrs Aley Lukose is the force and passion behind this book….For many decades, she has been treasuring a bunch of typed out pages, fast yellowing and crumbling with age….Dr Mary’s determination was still alive: her story was sure to be told, read and applauded. It was not something to be quietly lost and buried in history.’

Leena Chandran, who has put this book together, has left no stone unturned in her search for information. The Kerala State Archives , AIR, Thiruvananthapuram, the British Library in London, the archives at Rotunda Hospital figure among the prime sources. No mean deal this effort.

Today when Kerala leads in the health sector how many of us are aware of the contribution of Dr Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1976) to the field of medicine and medical education (she was a member of the expert committee along with Dr C O Karunakaran and Dr R Kesavan Nair to look into the proposed Medical College in Trivandrum), and her multi-faceted personality. ‘Trailblazer – The Legendary Life and Times of Dr Mary Poonen Lukose, Surgeon General of Travancore', aptly fills the void and prompts us to put our memories on rewind.

( S Uma Maheswari is a researcher and historian who has written extensively on Sree Padmanabhaswami Temple and Travancore history.)

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