Isaac Santra (3 November 1892 – 29 August 1968) was an Indian physician who conducted anti-leprosy work in India and worldwide.
Santra was born to a Christian family in Sambalpur, Odisha. Against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become a missionary, he entered Cuttack Medical School and graduated in 1917. During his education at Cuttack, he encountered a woman pleading with doctors who refused to treat her husband’s leprosy. This incident influenced him to devote his career to leprosy.
Santra was an early proponent of chaulmoogra oil as a treatment for leprosy, having encountered a recommendation for its use in the ancient Sanskrit medical text Sushruta Samhita. He was head of the Leprosy Survey of India from 1927 to 1931, and he was a member of the Leprosy Prevention Society of Great Britain from 1932 to 1947. He worked with Ernest Muir at the School of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta. He conducted numerous extensive leprosy surveys throughout India, and helped the Indian government to design model leprosy colonies for the isolation of patients. Santra’s aim was to make their lives as comfortable as possible, but he also aimed to implement measures such as sterilisation and the separation of children from parents in order to prevent further spread of the disease.
In 1951, Santra established a leprosy treatment centre, Hathibari Health Home, at Hathibari, near the border between Odisha and West Bengal states.
Hathibari was designed as a self-supporting agricultural colony, and it was built in a large area with dams and potential for all sorts of farming. During the first two years of Santra’s work there, he would cycle the twenty-four kilometres from Sambalpur. Eventually he built a house in the colony and lived there. By 1963, the Government of Orissa had taken over Hathibari’s management, and then handed it to the Orissa State Branch of the Hind Kusht Nivaran Sangh (HKNS).
As a representative of the International Leprosy Association, Santra also spent periods working in other countries, including Japan and Nigeria. He visited Japan in 1935 and reported favourably on the conditions in leprosaria there. Santra reported that “every patient on death is autopsied” and there was a “vast collection of material” at Aiseien Nagashima, Okayama. He also learnt that the married male patients were sterilised on their own consent. (Santra, Leprosy in India) He described how at Oshima, since 1909, 600 cases had died and the viscera of 230 had been preserved in 10% formalin. He was also aware that autopsies were being performed on foetuses, as well, because he stated that M leprae had been found in the viscera of the foetus but they were difficult to differentiate from the tubercle bacillus. Santra ended his report saying that “Places of isolation are not isolated places in Japan. The leper [sic] is happy and active… All the conveniences of the West are combined with the hospitality of the East.” The doctors shared their work with him, saying that “Nothing is secret in Japan except the military.” p. 28
He was honoured by the Indian government with the Padma Shri in 1956.
Ferber, Sarah, and Ms Sally Wilde, eds. The Body Divided: Human Beings and Human 'Material' in Modern Medical History. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.
Mishra, Nivedita. ‘Leprosy in India: The remarkable life of Dr Isaac Santra.’ Hindustan Times. 24 Jan 2015. Web.
Santra, Isaac. “Notes on Leprosy in Japan,” Leprosy in India (1953): 26-7.