Epidemics in 1800s and how Kerala's princely state Travancore tackled them

Ruler of erstwhile Travancore, Maharani Gouri Parvathy Bayi.

As the world struggles to cope with COVID-19, it would be interesting to remember how the princely state of Travancore tackled another epidemic, cholera, back in the early 1800s.

Cholera started wreaking havoc in Bengal in 1819 and soon spread to Bombay and Bangalore. When it was felt that the disease would soon reach Travancore, the ruler of Travancore, Maharani Gouri Parvathy Bayi, sought the help of the English East India Company to contain the scourge.

Learning that foreign and Indian allopathy doctors were in the forefront in the efforts to control cholera in big cities, the Maharani started making plans to prevent its spread in Travancore. During those days there were very few doctors trained in modern medicine in Travancore. Dr Brown, Dr Gayle and Dr Muthuswamy were among them.

Maharani decided to boring preventive allopathy medicine against cholera from Madras and distribute it in Travancore through traditional healers (vaidyans). On the twelfth day of the month of Thulam in the year 994 according to the Malayalam calendar, the Diwan of Travancore Janardanarayar Venkittayar issued a proclamation stating that the allopathy doctors should train traditional healers on how to familiarize the public regarding consumption of modern drugs.

Dr Brown, who was paid Rs 460 by the East India Company, was allotted another Rs 200 to destroy small pox and yet another Rs 200 as salary to stay in Thiruvananthapuram.

Those who were trained to administer allopathy medicine to the public were soon appointed in the post of ‘Medical pupil’ by Travancore government.

Cholera arrived in Travancore even as people were dying in the hilly areas of the north and south due to malaria and small pox. The rulers of Travancore realized that local treatment methods were ineffective against the combined threat posed by these three epidemics. As a result, hospitals offering free allopathy treatment (Dharmasupathris) were opened in various parts of the princely state. They included the Army Hospital inside the Fort in Malayalam era (ME) 994 and the other hospitals in Kollam in ME 995, Nagercoil in ME 1015 and Thycaud in ME 1012.