International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

  • International Leprosy Association -
    History of Leprosy


    Dr J M Mehta

    Status Physician
    Country India


    Dr J M Mehta (1927-), ‘Some Personal Reminiscences Related to Leprosy’, in S S Naik (ed.), The Indian Leprologists Look Back. Bombay, 1990. pp. 83-87. Revised for this internet entry by Huw Price, 31 August, 1990.

    Brief account of your early life - childhood and premedical education.

    I had a happy childhood and was a student at the St. Mary’s High School, Mazagaon, Bombay. I was a good student but my usual rank used to be second and my student colleague and friend used to take the first rank. At times, I used to beat him to the first position, but, those occasions were rare and not particularly happy for me. Even in those days I had a circle of friends including the boy who used to come first in class, between whom we used to exchange notes and views on national, humanitarian and moral issues, comparing our daily notes. This was highly personal and involved a fairly deep relationship.

    I was also educated at home in a very liberal atmosphere and in a scientific temper without any orthodox or obscurantist influences. Besides, from my childhood days humanitarian values were impressed upon me by my parents and by my teacher and later by one of the well-known professors of St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, though I did not join St. Xavier’s and my pre-medical education - that is, for Inter-Science - was carried out at the Elphinstone College and the Royal Institute of Science, Bombay. At the Royal Institute of Science looking at the Roll of Honour where Dr. Homi Bhabha’s name was mentioned gave me some inspiration though I did not take physics as a subject of my study but diverted to biology and thus went in for Medicine. St. Mary’s being a School run by the Society of Jesus, certain Christian theological principles were placed before us but with my ever-questioning mind I would not take anything as gospel truth. This put me into trouble at times with the authorities as I was not prepared to hero-worship any individual or dogma. However, science still reigns supreme in my mental make-up and it was this scientific inquiry and scientific investigation that really led me on to the study of leprosy in later life. There was some emotional content - more pragmatic than emotional which made me institute various services for the amelioration of human suffering caused by leprosy and this service-oriented philosophy helped me to establish several leprosy projects especially those for the rehabilitation of cured leprosy patients.

    How did you enter the field of leprosy? The people and the circumstances that stimulated you to work in leprosy.

    When I joined the Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College in Bombay, it was a practice that the new entrants were addressed by some prominent personality at the beginning of the term. It was my good fortune to listen to Dr. Robert Cochrane, the great leprologist, who came dressed in a ‘khaki’ suit - I still remember it vividly - and gave a most inspiring talk on the subject of leprosy. He knew we were just fresh medical students and yet he made his lecture most interesting. He did not talk about the technicalities of the disease but spoke more about its history, social aspects and stigma and the human suffering and misery that it brings. He exposed us to the necessity of doing something for this disease and laid bare before us the whole scientific adventure which he had undertaken and which he implored us to take up during our medical studies and later after we qualify as doctors and medical scientists.

    This inspiration from Dr. Cochrane was in 1945, while opposite to the K. E. M. Hospital was the great Dr. Khanolkar who made his initial very significant studies in the histopathology of leprosy and placed before the world the ICRC bacillus which today forms the basis of the Indian Leprosy Vaccine.

    During my transition from school to college were the days of the 1942 Movement and thereafter in the Medical College during l946-47 we saw some of the most violent communal rioting when India was in the throes of being divided into India and Pakistan. I remember how we welcomed Mrs. Aruna Asaf Ali lecturing to us, and all that gave me, from those days, an inspiration that after I qualify I should be able to use my knowledge and education and devote some time from the start of my professional career for the betterment of mankind: and thus in Pune, when I started doing surgery, I thought I could assist at the Kondhawa Leper Home for which an excellent opportunity came before me in the form of Dr. N. J. Bandorawalla (my father-in-law) and Dr. Noshir Antia. This is how I got involved. in reconstructive surgical work for the correction of leprous deformities; but then that was just not enough and gradually I took more and more to working in the general field of Leprosy so that when Dr. Bandorawalla passed away in 1966 I took over and expanded the Kondhawa Leper Home with many projects more in the field of leprosy control and. rehabilitation.

    Your principal contribution to enhance the knowledge on the subject and your experiences.

    1. To demonstrate that it is possible to assist in breaking the leprosy stigma by the formation of the ‘‘Common Vocational Training Project for the Handicapped” (CVTPH) in which the leprosy deformed “other” orthopaedically handicapped and able-bodied are brought under one roof for the purpose of vocational training and rehabilitation.

    2. It is possible to make the leprosy handicapped capable of performing most industrial jobs only through vocational training and without reconstructive surgery for correcting deformities of the hand and in spite of loss of sensation of these hands.

    3. For employment the “Mehta Co-operative Rehabilitation Model” (MCRM) has been established in which some unique features have been devised, researched and implemented by me:

    • The Society is controlled by the patients themselves.
    • A sizeable amount of the earnings of the Society will be set aside and given to the Poona District Leprosy Committee (PDLC) which is a Charitable Trust for carrying out leprosy relief work. Thereby, those patients who were helped by PDLC for their socioeconomic rehabilitation are now in turn doing charity thus paying back their debt to society and in the process gaining great self- respect.
    • Any patient referred by PDLC to the Co-operative Society for receiving vocational training will be imparted this training, free of cost, by the Co-operative Society.
    • A certain sum of money will he regularly set aside for development of capital reserve.

    4. Health Education is of utmost importance and can be carried out through mass communication media by the production of suitable films 3 of which: (1) “Sweekar” / “Acceptance”, (2) “Reconstructive Surgery Leprosy (Hand)”, (3) “ Neuropathic Foot in Leprosy”, all produced by me, have won National Awards.

    The changing patterns of leprosy-clinical, sociological, administrative and therapeutic aspects during your association with leprosy.

    Leprosy during my time has changed considerably though still we get some highly severe cases with gross laryngeal involvement but rare. Leprosy projects are nowadays managed and administered professionally with good results, and therapy has today become fairly systematised with Multi-Drug Therapy but still there are several lacunae. However, from the social aspect I am happy that our patients can today enter a large industrial factory like TELCO, Pune, [who] deliver goods manufactured by them (leprosy patients) and take fresh orders from the concerned departments. This interaction was not possible and not even heard of some years ago when I started my rehabilitation work.

    Narrate any interesting or important incident connected with leprosy

    There are many important incidents connected with leprosy but I will name a few here:

    1. In our school surveys we detected several children suffering from leprosy and told them about the hypo-pigmented patch with loss of sensation. It was highly revealing how some of the children brought to us other children suffering from such a patch which in our surveys we had missed! Hence, children who are taught about leprosy discovered other children suffering from leprosy and brought them to us without any fear or stigma.

    2. A lady who had just started working with us had to leave the job as she and her family were boycotted by her neighbours and that too in an upper crust educated society.

    3. In order to avoid the issue tailors in certain hospitals refused to accept cloth supplied by us for stitching bedsheets and hospital uniforms on the plea that the cloth produced in a leprosy institution was giving them itching and skin irritation

    4. Even metal parts fabricated by our Workshop were not accepted by the industrial workers of the factories to which these parts were supplied for further processing.

    All this has now changed and is becoming a matter of the past and will soon, hopefully, become a matter of history.

    Your thoughts on the future of the field of leprosy in India over the next 25 years.

    The future of leprosy in India is hopeful in the sense that it will come under control and ultimately get wiped out. But, this I believe will happen when the living conditions of our people improve. Leprosy disappeared from Europe after the Medieval period though there were no drugs and the leprosy bacillus was not yet discovered. We today have the drugs, we have the know-how, we know the cause of the disease, we know that it is caused by M. Leprae, and yet we have more than 4 million patients. What does this show? That our implementation is weak and community participation poor.

    Your remembrance about famous people who have inspired, and influenced you and your career in leprosy.

    Most of my inspiration has come from within me, as I do not believe in hero-worship, and I hope I am able to remain young and inspired, and carry on with my work especially in the scientific aspects for which I must keep studying and experimenting.

    Brief account of interest and hobbies not related to leprosy.

    My other interests have been in the field of Sera and Vaccines; and World History forms an important hobby.

    Other comments.

    Lastly, some interesting history of the Kondhawa Leper Home needs to be documented:

    The Kondhawa Leper Home was founded by the Scottish Mission in 1910 and run by them up to 1942 when it was given over to the Bombay Government which in turn handed it over to the Poona District Leprosy Committee in 1956. The Home had a tragic reputation as one Dr. Simon was murdered there by the patients and the Doctor Superintendent in 1956 was also threatened requiring police protection.

    There were no beds, the wards had mud flooring and the treatment was Dapsone and some iron tablets. Here the late Dr. Shivajirao Patwardhan of Amravati came to our help, repeatedly visited us and inspired us with his work in Amravati and his towering personality. Dry rations were provided to the patients who were locked-in beyond the Office building into dormitories for male and female patients. There was no electricity, no telephone and no latrines. Filtered drinking water was not available. The first reconstruction operations were performed on a wooden table with the help of dry cell torch lights and Sir Harold Gillies and Dr. Paul Brand operated in these circumstances and were happy to do so as it revived in them memories of their pioneer days. It is relevant to point out that Dr. Robert Cochrane worked at Kondhawa and so did Dr. T. Davey and Dr. Ross Innes.

    Another historical event which I discovered was that a particular servant employed at Dr. Dinshaw Mehta’s Nature Cure Clinic at Toddywalla Road, Pune, where Mahatma Gandhi used to stay, was detected as suffering from leprosy by Mahatma Gandhi himself and this patient was then referred to Kondhawa and treated.

    The script received on April 16, 1990.

    Treatment Used/Researched:
    Reconstructive Surgery


    Mehta, J M "Prevention of Dehabilitation in Leprosy", Leprosy in India, 49, 240-246, 1977.
    Mehta, J M, Nimbalkar, S T, and Thalayan, K. "A New Approach in the Relief of Pain of Leprous Neuritis", Leprosy in India, 51, 459-464, 1979.
    Kulkarni, V N and Mehta, J M, "Observation on Peg-Prosthesis in Leprosy", Leprosy in India, 54, 110-116, 1982.
    Kulkarni, V N and Mehta, J M, "Tarsal Disintegration (T.D.) in Leprosy", Leprosy in India, 55, 338-370, 1983.
    Kulkarni, V N and Mehta, J M, "Splinting of the Hand in Leprosy", Leprosy in India, 55, 483-484, 1983.
    Mehta, J M, Gandhi, I S, Sane, S B, Wamburkar, M N, "Effect of Clozamine and Dapsone of Rifampicin (Lositril) Pharmacokinetics in Multibacillary and Paucibacillary leprosy cases", Indian Journal of Leprosy, 57, 297-310, 1985.

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