Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 12, October 1-15, 2021

Balasundaram and the Ehrlich Laboratory

by Sunitha Madhavan

The first diagnostic laboratory in Madras was set up by Dr. S. Balasundaram on February 3rd, 1938. What sparked this crucial move was a heartbreaking incident. His second child had died of liver enlargement the previous year. Balasundaram was then working in a clinic on Coral Merchant street in North Madras. Sensing that the child’s life was ebbing away, he approached his European employer with a request for some time off and advance pay. He was turned down. On returning home after the day’s work, he could only see the lifeless child. This traumatic experience ignited an unflinching determination to start a clinical laboratory of his own.

At the inauguration of Ehrlich Lab. Left to right: (2nd) A.A. Hayles (Madras Mail), Dr T.S. Tirumurti, Dr. U. Rama Rau (6th), Dr. T.S.S. Rajan (8th) and Dr. Balasundaram.

Press stories of the just opened research lab were well received by the public. The Hindu reported the opening ceremony the next day. Dr. S. Balasundaram received the Hon. Dr. T.S.S. Rajan, Minister for Public Health. The occasion was graced by a select gathering of medical men. Dr. T.S. Tirumurti gave the welcome address and explained that the institution’s role would be that of a diagnostic laboratory where tests, pathological, bacteriological and biochemical, would be carried out at the request of medical practitioners. The new laboratory was christened after the 1908 Nobel laureate in Medicine, (Paul) ‘Ehrlich’. It initially stood on Royapettah High Road, where later arose the Pilot Theatre, now a lost vestige of Chennai.

The outbreak of World War-II left the city bleak with its residents fleeing to the districts. But the visionary Dr. S. Balasundaram stood his ground. He sold his house in Mylapore and purchased land nearby on Masilamani Mudali street in Balaji Nagar. A German architect volunteered to construct the new laboratory building at low cost with hollow bricks, quite uncommon in those times. It was completed in 1940 and the clinical laboratory went on to acquire distinction in the healthcare industry through its exemplary quality of service.

The laboratory functioned on the ground floor while the family dwelt upstairs. The man behind it all, Dr. S. Balasundaram, was born in September 1907 as the only son of Thellur Subramaniam Iyer. It was a tryst with destiny that put him on the road to renown. While a student in the Hindu High School, his patriotic fervour drove him to the freedom movement; he was involved in stirs against the Rowlatt Act, 1919. That led to his prompt expulsion from the school. What hurt him most was parting with his classmate and close friend G.N. Balasubramaniam! Both were fondly referred to as the two ‘balas’ (kids). However, the friendship continued and years later, it was G.N.B’s concert that provided the music for for Balasundaram’s eldest daughter’s marriage reception.

After all the upheavals, Balasundaram at the behest of his mother Thangammal, joined the P. S. High School and completed his schooling. Thereafter, medicine was the raison d’etre in his life. He studied in Stanley Medical College and obtained the Licensiate of Medical Practice (LMP) diploma under considerable financial strain. He walked the distance from his house at Triplicane to the College at Royapuram. Medical books were free for medicos who signed up to serve the army. Balasundaram befriended Mr. Sundaresan, the brother-in-law of Raval Krishna Iyer (engineer & contractor). Sundaresan pledged his service to the military, and so had the benefit of obtaining all course material for free. He gladly shared his books with the brilliant Balasundaram who was his role model. Later, his benign disposition was well rewarded. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded Burma, Dr. Sundaresan was captured. Nothing of his whereabouts were known until his release in 1949. During these seven long years, Dr. Balasundaram took complete care of his friend’s entire family.

The marriage of Balasundaram to Pattammal was celebrated in 1927 at Tiruvannamalai. She was the daughter of A. Venkatrama Iyer, devotee of Sri Seshadri Swamigal and the Headmaster of The Danish Mission High School, Tiruvannamalai. Following the wedding, the young medico set up a medical practice that very year at his modest residence on Madhava Perumal Koil Street in Mylapore. He bought a three-wheeler motorbike with a side car to make house calls and to take his bride for a ride around the city. The couple had seven children. It was in 1937 that he lost his second child to liver ailment, common in those days among infants; it was then that the firm resolve to establish a diagnostic laboratory took root in his heart. As a result, the legendary Balasundaram emerged to become an icon in the field.

Those were the days when computers and auto analyzers were unheard of. Investigations had to be done manually. Blood counts were taken in sunlight, with the microscopes placed near a window. The eldest son, Madhavan, was adept at the skill and proved to be an immense help to his father. The roles of physician, pathologist and pharmacist were all rolled into one. When the compounder Raja Rao was on leave, it was Pattammal who helped in the preparation of mixture and the powders for patients. Reagents for laboratory tests were also done manually. Animal testing required rearing of rabbits, guinea pigs and goats – and yes, cows too as there was no Aavin in those days! A pet dog was part of the family too. Naturally, the neighbourhood children were greatly attracted to this vivarium.

The physician-pathologist Dr. Balasundaram was a pioneer in medical investigation. The appalling mortality rate of children propelled him to study hepatic cirrhosis that caused liver enlargement in young ones. His research papers, published in foreign medical journals like the UK-based Pathologist were acknowledged by Dr. S.S. Misra, Dr. P. Krishna Rao and others. The Madras Medical Gazette of 1940 published a series of three papers: the first being Infantile Biliary Cirrhosis in India, the second Soil and Environment, and the third, Diet and Habits of Children. He wrote with authority – he had a certification from the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), he was a Member of the Institute of Chemists (MIC) as well as a Fellow of the International Society of Hematologists (FISH) in the US. In the early 1960s, he toured Russia and Europe as a member of the Indian delegation of doctors, visiting hospitals and medical colleges there. In Germany, at the Paul Ehrlich Institute in Langen near Frankfurt, he was honored with a portrait of the father of modern chemotherapy.

The veteran’s knowledge and administrative skills were much sought after by several organisations for their growth. He was the Director of the Seshasayee-run Mettur Chemicals, as well as the Honorary Pathology Consultant at the Cancer Institute and the Voluntary Health Service, both at Adyar. The genius and geniality of the man drew clients from a wide spectrum from the under privileged to the upper echelons of society. He treated poor patients for free. In a couple of TB cases where the bread winner was advised rest, the philanthropist supported their families for an entire year.

Interestingly, the man who made a prominent mark in the medical field also devoted time to sports and culture. He was a member of the Suguna Vilas Sabha. Given his fair complexion and chiseled features, he had even acted the female roles in a few plays staged by the Sabha! He was the President of the Children’s Club of Madras. In his revered memory, the Club awards prizes/trophies to winners of its annual events for boys who excel in sports and performance. When he was at the height of popularity, the man who created a memorable landmark in Madras city shed his mortal coil on 4th Aug 1966. Ironically, the iconic teetotaler’s end was hastened by primary liver cancer.

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