Dr Sushila Nayar – Gandhi’s Doctor and a Messiah of Public Health in India
In a chilly winter morning of December 26, 1914, an era where birth of a female child was considered a burden, a girl named Sushila was born in a middle-class family. She grew up to be a mettlesome young woman who was determined to create change by improvising health care sector in India and providing healthcare services to the under privileged section of the society who had zero access medical care. Her life was not a fairy tale but rather an astounding saga of sacrifices and accomplishments.
Dr Sushila Nayar belonged from Kunjah, a small town in the Gujarat district of Punjab (now in Pakistan). Ever since her childhood she was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s social & political philosophies. Since the very beginning she was in a close association with Gandhi ji as her brother Pyarelal Nayar was a personal secretary of Gandhi.
Dr Sushila travelled to Delhi and earned degrees, MBBS and MD from Lady Hardinge Medical College, a college that was formed in 1916 and became a part of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Delhi in 1950.
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After graduating in 1939, her brother, Pyarelal Nayar brought her to Sevagram where Dr B.C Roy told her to look after Gandhiji as he had high blood pressure but soon after, this fresh graduate, witnessed the outbreak of Cholera in Sevagram. She managed the cases unassisted and was able to fight against cholera outbreak in the city of Wardha. This sculpted her career and gave her a lifelong experience. Her stay in Sevagram not only provided her with spiritual and nationalistic perspectives, but also allowed her to witness community medicine in a village. This feat of leadership caught Gandhi’s attention, and he praised her courage, capability and commitment to public service. Soon after Gandhi appointer Nayar as his personal physician and from then on she became an integral part of the “Quit India Movement”.
Sushila stood beside Gandhi during his struggle for India’s freedom. She played a leading role in the Quit India Movement. This brave woman, who fearlessly faced and rebelled against the British rule, got arrested and was prisoned in Aga Khan Palace jail along with Kasturba Gandhi. Dr Sushila along with Mahatma Gandhi visited Khwaja Abdul Hamied, founder of Cipla pharmaceuticals for supporting him to produce essentials medications since the Indians were boycotting all the British goods including their drugs.
However, the larger goal was to provide proper healthcare to economically backward individuals. Since there were no medical facilities in and around Sevagram, in 1944, she started a small dispensary in the ashram. There she started treating the victims of the pre-partition riots of Noakhali, Punjab and Kashmir.
Its growing popularity allowed her to move out into a small clinic donated by G D Birla. This clinic was to become a seed of a hospital, and in 1945, her dream came true with the establishment of the Kasturba Hospital (now the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences). She continued to be its founder- director until her death.
With just 15 beds, the hospital began as a child and maternity hospital, which functioned under the ashram’s care from 1948 to 1954. In the next few years, the hospital developed into Kasturba Health Society, thanks to her incessant efforts to take medicine to all.
She started the Kasturba Health Society. Nayar was also Chairman of the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust and the Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a University started by Gandhi.
Following assassination of Gandhi, Dr Sushila moved to United States and received two degrees in Public Health, Masters of public health (MPH) and Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) from John Hopkins School of Public Health. She returned back to India in 1950 and developed multiple healthcare programmes.
In 1952, when the first election took place in India, Dr Sushila entered into the world of politics and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Delhi (1952 – 1956). Later she became the first health minister of Delhi in Nehru’s cabinet and served until 1955. During her service as minister of health, many fundamental health programs were begun, including treatment and control of malaria, venereal disease, tuberculosis, and leprosy. From 1962 – 1967 she served as a Union Health Minister.
Nayar was a social reformer who strongly believed and considered alcohol as evil. She joined the prohibition committee and remained its chairperson for over three decades.
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In 1977, Dr Sushila retired from the political arena and continued working for the upliftment of the society. She wrote an award winning book “Bapu ki Karawas kahani” which receives a presidential award in 1952. Her brother, Pyarelal Nayar also wrote books in three volumes on Gandhi but could not continue due to his death. It was Dr Sushila Nayar who completed the remaining five volumes of this series.
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Dr Nayar also received multiple awards such as “Desikottam” by Vishwa Bharati University Shantiniketan in 1995; The “Amol Prabha Das Award” by the Government of Assam in 1996; The “Ba and Bapu” award by Ba-Bapu Samiti, Pune in 1997. Later she was also honoured as the “Public Health Person of the Millennium Award” in 2000. These are just to name a few.
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She remained unmarried her entire life and on 3 January 2001, Dr Sushila died due to a cardiac arrest at an age of 86. Nayar spent her entire life executing Gandhi’s ideologies by working continuously in bringing peace and maintaining communal harmony during the period of partition,
With her inspiring & charismatic personality, she was a beacon of feminism at a time when women were considered as a burden in society!