Abstract: This article is a biographical sketch of Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose who contributed largely towards the development of health care activities in erstwhile Travancore. She is remarkable for her organisational capacity and relentless work which enabled her to achieve her ideals. She was instrumental for the establishment of the Nagercoil TB sanatorium and the X-Ray and Radium Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. She was the first native lady gynaecologist of Thiruvananthapuram, the first lady legislator and the first lady Surgeon General.
Keywords: Trivandrum gynaecologist, first native lady gynaecologist, Calicut medical college
Born With a Silver Spoon in Her Mouth
Dr.Mary Poonen Lukose was the first native lady gynaecologist of Thiruvananthapuram, the first lady legislator, first lady surgeon general and so many other firsts. She was born on 2nd August, 1886. Her father was Dr. T.E. Poonen who belonged to a well connected aristocratic family. Some of the members of this family have gained national recognition like Dr.P.V.Cheriyan (famous ENT surgeon of Madras who later became the Governor of Maharashtra) and Dr.John Mathai (Economist, Central Finance Minister during the first Nehru Ministry.) Unfortunately Mrs.Poonen had some medical problem and hence she stayed with her brothers at Aimanom, near Kottayam. Mary was brought up by British governesses and had a lonely childhood with no one to play with. Since Dr.Poonen was quite close to the Royal Palace, he used to take her there with him. Maharaja Sreemoolam Tirunal had a paternal affection for her.
She passed her matriculation examination with distinction from Holy Angel’s Convent High School in Thiruvananthapuram. Though she topped in her examination results, she could not get admission in the Maharaja’s College then. So she continued in her school itself and passed her FA exam (First Examination in Arts) from there. Admission to a science subject in Maharaja’s College was again denied to her as she was a woman. So she had to content herself by joining for BA with History as her main subject and Economics as subsidiary. She got admission at least for this course because of her perseverance and her father’s political influence. Probably she was the first and only female student of Maharaja’s College then.
One can possibly imagine a girl’s trials and tribulations in an all male domain in those days. It must have been a test of endurance but she continued there and passed her BA examination (1909) – the first woman graduate from Madras University. She desired to be a doctor like her dad but admission to any Medical College in India for a woman was impossible. She had to go to London and in fact she was the first Indian student (that too an Arts graduate) to join the London University for M.B.B.S. In a way she did not really give up her interest in Arts. She did pass the London Music Examination at the age of eighteen. By that time the First World War broke out and she had to stay back in the U.K. She joined for her postgraduate studies in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. She passed her MRCOG examination creditably. She had further training in Paediatrics from the Children’s Hospital, Ormond Street, London (which even today is considered as one of the fine teaching centers for Paediatrics). During her stay in the U.K. (till 1916), she worked in various Military Hospitals. After the war she got excellent offers from different hospitals to continue in Britain.
Back to Thiruvananthapuram
By that time things were not too pleasant back home. Her father had died not too long after she left for the U.K., leaving her almost an orphan. She was quoted by some of her contemporaries thus, “I went to U.K. almost like a queen but returned as an orphan.” For that matter almost everything in her father’s large bungalow was looted and she found her old house in a dilapidated condition. Seeing her plight, the Maharaja called her and consoled her. It was the fatherly affection of the Maharaja, which helped her to a great extent to overcome her grief. In reality, the Poonens had very little contact with their local relatives or other people. She and her entire family had to pay very heavily for the self-imposed seclusion from their community and people. They were more attached to the Palace and high class Hindus than to their local Christian Community.
She decided to remain in Thiruvananthapuram as she came to know of a vacancy of obstetrician at Thycaud hospital. Mrs. Austin, a white woman who was the superintendent left that hospital after her marriage. That post was exclusively for the White people and despite the patronage of none other than the Maharaja, Mary could not get that job in the first attempt. Though she had better qualifications than her predecessor, she was a “native” and hence the local British administrators turned down her application. But the help from the Palace was obvious as her case was referred to the Secretary of State, Mr.Montague. Seeing her excellent credentials, he had no second thoughts and hence she could get that post in 1916. (She continued in that post till 1938.) In 1917, she married an advocate, Mr.K.K.Lukose , who later became a Judge of the High Court of Travancore. Though she worked as the Chief of Medical Services in Travancore right from her first appointment in 1916 at the age of 30, she was appointed as the “Acting Surgeon General” of Travancore in 1924. This was the first time that a woman was appointed as the Surgeon General anywhere in the world.
Mention has already been made about the Women and Children’s Hospital at Thycaud. It was a beautiful hospital with hundred beds. However, she discovered to her astonishment that there were hardly ten or fifteen patients at any given time in this hospital, despite the doctors and other paramedical staff coaxing the people to get admitted there. She had about a dozen Belgian and Italian nurses but other staff was insufficient and inefficient. The worst problem she had to encounter was the superstition of the locals, nurtured very much by her own staff. Patients sought treatment from this hospital as a last resort and inevitably the mortality rate was high, which “proved” the local Vaidyan’s (local medicine man) prophecies. Added to her woes was the problem of the local midwives. She was clever and hence understood the trick of getting them to her side. She gradually evolved a system by which the children of some midwives were taken up in the hospital for proper training in childbirth and neonatal care. Many of the hereditary thais( midwives) found this system attractive as they apparently continued to get the same privilege as before. Even all these did not really change the attitude of the people. The maternal and neonatal mortality was quite significant then with the local thais conducting the deliveries in crude and dirty manner. At the same time, the “pupil-midwife” training programme was an immense success as the students turned out to be her advocates for the general population. She set an example to have her own first delivery conducted at the Thycaud hospital.
It was her relentless work that led to the establishment of the Nagercoil TB Sanatorium and the X-Ray and Radium Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. She used to travel extensively all over Travancore to inspect the various hospitals and address school children and the public regarding public health matters. She was a member of the then newly formed Indian Medical Association and Indian Obstetrical Association. She took part in the associational activities energetically. When in the United Kingdom, she had stayed at the YWCA and hence she, with a few other like-minded ladies started the Thiruvananthapuram branch of the YWCA where she was the founder President for the next nearly fifty years – that too, elected every time, an exception to the general rule even now. Her interest in the Scouts and Guides programme was equally laudable. She became the first lady legislator in Travancore in 1922 and continued to be nominated till 1937 to the Sree Chitra State Council (Legislative Assembly).
It was in a way unfortunate that she was born in a very aristocratic family and that too without getting any maternal affection or ordinary childhood friends. Her father occupied an important social position by which he became alienated from his own people. But Mary grew up as a very affectionate child, happy, ambitious like her father and determined to come up well in life. She even surpassed her father but the price she had to pay for that success was enormous. She was quite fortunate to have got a very understanding, progressive minded and highly educated person such as Mr. Lukose as her husband. She brought up her children in the same way as she herself had grown up, which certainly was not easy for the kids. Her husband died in 1947. The Poonens had two children, the eldest was Dr.Gracie who had followed her mother’s footsteps and became a surgeon. She was a spinster. Unfortunately she passed away in a tragic accident at an early age. Her son K.P. Lukose too had studied in the U.K. On his return to India, he was taken up in the Indian Foreign Service without further examination. He became Consul General and Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in Geneva. Finally he became Indian Ambassador to Bulgaria. Unfortunately he died suddenly following a heart attack on 16th May, 1975. He is survived by his wife who now resides at Kottayam. After the death of her son, Dr.Mary Poonen Lukose lived only for a year and a half. She was practically alone at the fag end of her life but she never allowed herself self-pity in any way. She continued to work in the YWCA movement and other social activities till the ripe old age of ninety. She died on October 2nd, 1976.
Author’s Note: When I wanted to write a paper about Dr.(Mrs)Poonen Lukose, it was a real task, as the only information I got from many was that she was indeed a “tragic heroine” who had spent her entire life in a very artificial surrounding with probably no contact with the local people. Personal discussions with Mrs.K.P.Lukose of Kottayam (daughter-in-law of Mrs.Poonen Lukose), Sri.T.N.Kuriakos, former Accountant General of Kerala, Dr.K.Kesavan Nair, Mr.John Lukose of Malayala Manorama, Dr.Leelamony Ambrose, Former Director-Professor of Medicine, Calicut Medical College, Dr.K. Sivarajan (former Professor and Head of Surgery at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College) who was a classmate of Dr.Gracie Lukose in Madras, Dr.Marthanda Varma of Bangalore who was another contemporary of Miss Gracie Lukose in U.K. and also with the president and Secretary of Thiruvananthapuram YWCA, Mrs. Susan Paul and Mrs. Annie George have helped me glean almost all the important details of her life and profession.
1 Karunakaran, C.O. “A Near Contemporary Speaks.” Souvenir published on the occasion of the 80th birthday of Dr. Mrs. Poonen Lukose, 1966.
K RAJASEKHARAN NAIR. Retired as the Director – Professor and Head of the Department of Neurology, Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram. Currently he is working as Senior Consultant in Neurology at the Cosmopolitan Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram. He is the founder of the Departments of Neurology at Calicut Medical College, Kerala and at the University of Garyounis, Benghazi, Libya. Was the examiner for DM Neurology at most of the Universities of India and at various autonomous Institutes like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. Is a Visiting Professor of Neurology at various universities in USA. Is the recipient of various prestigious awards and fellowships which include one from the Royal Society of Medicine, UK. Has published 110 research papers and 11 books.