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Vol. XXXII No. 22, March 1-15, 2023

A Multifaceted personality who championed hygiene and sanitation

-- by Karthik Bhatt

The sanitary conditions in the mid-1800s in the Madras Presidency, much like in the rest of the country were appalling enough for Florence Nightingale to compile the Indian Sanitary Report. The construction of sewage drains in Madras was an important outcome of her efforts. Around the same time, a student at the Madras Medical College, William Edward Dhanakoti Raju compiled a manual in Tamil on the importance of proper hygiene, essential in the battle to survive in unsanitary conditions. This article, compiled from various journals of the late nineteenth century is a brief profile of this multi-faceted personality.

The details of Dhanakoti Raju’s early life are sketchy. He was from the Tirunelveli region and came under the tutelage of the missionary William Cruickshank at the Anglo-Vernacular school in Palayamcottah in the late 1850s. Dhanakoti Raju qualified in the matriculation exams held in 1863 and came to Madras to join the Medical College. He was a recipient of the Lane Scholarship, setup in the memory of Surgeon Lane of the Madras Medical Service. In 1866, Dhanakoti Raju passed the MB & CM examinations. The following year, he authored the Sugadhara Vilakkam, a manual comprising elementary lessons of hygiene. Explaining the necessity of such a work, he lamented the lack of education and awareness amongst the public on sanitary matters, which he described as an important cause for the high mortality rates prevailing in those times. Divided into eight chapters, the work dealt with various aspects essential for good health such as clean water, healthy diet, personal cleanliness, exercise and adequate sleep and the state of mind.

Dr. Dhanakoti Raju.

Written in simple language, the book soon gained praise from the press and personalities such as Robert Caldwell and the Raja of Vizianagaram. The Pachaiyappas Charities introduced the book at the High School and its branches in Kanchipuram and Chidambaram. The Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science called it a “really well arranged, clearly written and admirably expressed epitome of the more important facts of domestic sanitation and dietetics’’. Realising its potential as a useful tool to propagate hygiene, the Government of Madras in 1868 ordered the procurement of a thousand copies for distribution in the districts. The book was soon translated into English (as Elements of Hygiene), Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, with the Government procuring copies of these editions as well. In 1871, Dhanakoti Raju passed the MD examinations and thus, earned the distinction of being the first Indian MB & MD of the University of Madras. He then joined the Royapuram dispensary of the Madras Medical Mission around 1870 and was soon made in-charge of the place. In the late 1870s, he was elected a Commissioner of the Madras Corporation, representing the fourth, and later the eighth divisions. He resigned from the Corporation in 1884, ostensibly to concentrate on a series of industrial experiments that he had begun.

It is not clear as to what prompted Dr. Dhanakoti Raju to embark on ventures outside of his profession. The first of these that we hear of is an iron foundry established in 1878 under the name of D. Raju and Co, Victoria Works. This was established in Santhome, where Dhanakoti Raju resided. According to a later edition of the Electrical Trades Directory and Handbook, the business dealt with import of machinery and accessories for electric lighting, plating, transmission of power, telephones and hydraulic machinery. An advertisement for the business from the early 1900s shows it to be also making ornamental railings, staircases, garden seats, school benches etc. It is interesting to note that Dhanakoti Raju obtained large concessions for iron mining and manufacture in Mysore in 1890. As per the terms of the grant, the iron deposits of the Province were made over to him free of all duties and taxes for a period of fifty years, in addition to the land required for setting up the factories, workshops and housing for the workers. He was also granted waiver of import and export duty for twenty-five years, free fuel and exclusive gold mining and other rights for a distance of 100 square miles. His other ventures included setting up of a match factory in Travancore, salt pans at Kulasekarapatnam and Kayalpatnam in Tuticorin and a hydropathic establishment in Palayamcottah. Perhaps the most remarkable of his ventures was the steam navigation business.

The South India Steam Navigation Company was founded by Dhanakoti Raju along with a group of friends in 1890 as an attempt to challenge the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company. According to its prospectus, the company proposed to establish a small line of steamers and a regular weekly service ­between Kulasekarapatnam and Cuddalore and Kulasekarapatnam and Colombo. The first steamers were named Bheema and Krishna. Both were provided with comfortable deck accommodation and were lit with electric lights. They had a capacity of about 600 passengers and were capable of holding more than 400 tons of goods each. The entire crew was made up of Indians, thus making it a forerunner of sorts to VO Chidambaram Pillai’s Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company founded more than a decade later.

Apart from his book on hygiene, Dhanakoti Raju is also credited with a work on the life of Queen Victoria and bringing out a journal titled The Friendly Visitor. He passed away in early 1897. Today, the trail of almost all his ventures run cold. D Raju and Co and the Victoria Works seem to have been in existence at least until the 1920s, being run by his sons David and Samuel with an additional division, the Cureall Catholic Company dealing with thermal bath apparatus being added in the early 1900s.

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    Exactly, he is hailing from our Rajapalayam, in Virudhunagar district. Can I get any further details about his heirs at present. Valuable information.

    • Eric Raju says:

      Yes sir

    • Meloni says:

      I’m his great great granddaughter

    • Dhananjayan says:

      Thanks for wonderful article about an unsung hero from Rajapalayam

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