, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 529–552 | Cite as

An irritable state: the contingent politics of science and suffering in anti-cancer campaigns in South India (1940–1960)

  • Kavita SivaramakrishnanEmail author
Original Article


This article traces the making of anti-cancer campaigns in South India. Set at the cusp of decolonization, it explores how provincial physicians and women activists framed cancer care in the 1940s and 1950s. It offers insights into the argumentative, contingent ways in which public health concerns were framed and mobilized in Indian cities between a middle class public, medical experts and state agency. These cancer campaigns and local health debates have been neglected because historians have tended to focus on national level, political visions of health, on debates regarding international aid, transfer of medical technology, and targeted disease control programs. This has also shaped and limited how we have understood the complex, changing meanings and expectations of health and development in newly decolonized societies such as India. Analyzing the activist campaigns and writings of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi an influential physician, renowned Women’s Indian Association leader, and legislator, and tracing the making of urban, anti-cancer networks, I argue that cancer care campaigns both invoked and challenged nationalist and developmental priorities, and questioned assumptions about what were termed as ‘normative’ diseases and health risks in India. Even though they spoke of the curative, technoscientific and specialized aspects of cancer treatment and urged its provision in local hospitals, they also encouraged the state and philanthropists to assume moral responsibilities for care and chronic suffering. They built on contemporary social and political metaphors, especially Tamil cultural representations of women. These ideas created emerging spaces for debates through multiple discursive ambits that emerged while trying to articulate and balance ‘needs’ that were seen as dichotomous and competing between managing population wide, curable diseases and the needs of a vocal, minority of advocates supporting cancer care. These debate were no doubt also limited by the visions of middle-class women, urban philanthropy, and engagements with male political leaders, and health officials.


Cancer Welfare Gender Inequalities Health and development Suffering South India 



I am thankful to Dr. Kamala Ganesh for helping to obtain access to the Avabai Wadia Archive in Mumbai, and to Radhika Jhaveri for research support. I am indebted to Dr. V. Shanta, retired director of the Adyar Cancer Hospital, for generously tracing this history with me in a series of interviews conducted in Chennai in August 2015, and summers of 2016 and 2017.


Private Papers

    Avabhai Archives, Mumbai (Files arranged alphabetically based on file name)

    1. No Author (N.A.) (circa 1950) History of the Anti-Cancer Movement in this Province. File 1.13. (Author most likely M. Reddi).Google Scholar
    2. Legislative Council Question. Paper placed at the Table of the House [Vide Answer to Legislative Council Starred Question No. 162 asked by Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi Reddi. (1951) File 13.Google Scholar
    3. Letter from V.R. Khanolkar to Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi regarding Cancer Day. (24th January, 1951) reference, File 9.Google Scholar
    4. Letter from Rama Iyer to M. Reddi (1949) File 8.2, pp. 1–2.Google Scholar
    5. Letter from Dr. M.V. Ramamurti, Director of Medical Services to the Secretary to Government, Health Department, Medical Relief, Health Department, Madras, Letter No. 3176, 27-8-53.Google Scholar
    6. Letter from Mr. L. Srinivasan, Bangalore City 28 April 1949, File 8.1, IWC.Google Scholar
    7. N.A. Letter from Women’s Indian Association, Cancer Relief Fund to Chairman of Gandhi Memorial Fund. (28 April 1949) File 1, n.p.Google Scholar
    8. N.A. Note on Establishment of a Special and Separate Hospital for Cancer, Typewritten, undated. Speeches and Writings by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi (MR), File 4.26.Google Scholar
    9. Papers relating to American Cancer Society, Annual Report of American Cancer Society. (1950) File 14.Google Scholar
    10. N.A. ( circa 1952) Scientific Facts About Cancer Which Everyone Should Know, World Cancer Day Celebrations Committee, Madras. N.D, File 10.6.Google Scholar
    11. Rao R. (1936) The Need for a National Anti-Cancer Campaign in India. File 10.1, pp. 1–3.Google Scholar
    12. N.A. Women’s India Association reply regarding the G.O. for the formation of the cancer unit. (22nd June, 1949). G.O, File 2.5.Google Scholar
    13. N.A. (n.d. 1951/52) Resolution in favour [sic] of a separate hospital for Cancer passed at the 22nd session of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) at Bangalore. File 2. (Author most likely M. Reddi).Google Scholar
    14. N.A. Treatment of Cancer. With statement Dr. P.V. Cherian Criticizing Minister of Public Health for inaction on separate cancer treatment facilities. (n.d. circa 1952) Typewritten, undated, author not known, File 11.9.Google Scholar
    15. N.A. Welcome Address to Honorable Dr. Rajendra Prasad, President of the Indian Republic inaugurating Rashtrapati Block for Nurses. Incomplete and Undated (handwritten date, 1951). (Author most likely M. Reddi).Google Scholar

E. V. Cowdry Papers, the University of Washington, Missouri, Microfilm

  1. Review of the Cancer Institute, Cancer Relief Fund (1949–59), pp. 14–15. Series 126, Box 120, Folders 12–14.Google Scholar


  1. Dr. Shantha, Adyar Cancer Hospital (In August 2015 and 2017, and on 2/16/2016).Google Scholar

Wellcome Trust Library, History of Medicine Collections, London

  1. Dr. K. Manjunath Rai, Barnard Institute of Radiology, Madras to Captain E.J.C. Chapman, British Empire Cancer Campaign (18 Nov 1947) Radiation Therapy Legislation. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.Google Scholar
  2. Ralston Peterson, Christie Hospital and Holt Radium Institute, Manchester to Captain Tours, General Secretary, British Empire Cancer Campaign (4 Feb 1947) Regarding Journal of the National Cancer Institute and Cancer Association Madras. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.Google Scholar
  3. Dr. V. Krishnamoorthy, Barnard Institute of Radiology to Secretary British Empire Cancer Campaign (21 January 1947) Regarding Possibility for Research Grant. SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.Google Scholar
  4. Madras Mail (4 August 1945) Need for Separate Associations for Treatment of Cancer-Radiological Association Formed in Madras (News Clipping). SA/CRC/G4, Cancer India Files.Google Scholar

Tamil Nadu, State Government Archives

  1. Health Department Series. 1950. Cancer Propaganda among the people-leaflet for printing of copies in Tamil and Telegu Languages for Distribution during exhibitions and fairs and festivals-Ordered. G.O. Number 1217, 5-4-50.Google Scholar
  2. G.O. from the Office of Secretary to Health, Education and Local Administration (HELA), Government of Madras. (26th December 1953). No. 4227. Medical Institutions-Kasturba Hospital for Women and Children Madras and the Erskine Hospital, Madurai-Provision of Facilities for Cancer Treatment-Proposal Deferred.Google Scholar

National Archives, Delhi

  1. Home Affairs, Education Department, “Scheme No 6 1955-56 Avai Home and Ashram Adyar Madras, “Branch B3, Ministry of Education, NA F-13-60-55.Google Scholar


  1. The Hindu, “Treatment of Cancer, New Institute in the City: Prime Minister lays Foundation,” (Madras, 10 October 1954).Google Scholar
  2. The Madras Mail (9 September 1886) Suicide by Drowning: Report of the Coroner of Madras.Google Scholar
  3. Th Hindu (June 19 1954) Treatment of Cancer: New Institute in City: Inauguration by Deshmukh, Madras, June 18.Google Scholar
  4. The Indian Express (April 18, 1946) Gandhi Memorial Fund Appeal.Google Scholar

Books, Reports, Articles

  1. Amrith, S. 2006. Decolonizing International health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  2. Anandhi, S. 2008. The Manifesto and the Modern Self: Reading the Autobiography of Muthulakshmi Reddy. Chennai: Madras Institute of Development Studies.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, R. 1975. Building scientific institutions in India: Saha and Bhabha. Montreal: McGill University Centre for Developing Studies.Google Scholar
  4. Arnold, D. 2013. Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India: India’s Historical Experience in Historical Perspective. Isis, 104, 2 (June 2013), 360–370.Google Scholar
  5. Balkwill, F., and A. Mantovani. 2001. Inflammation and cancer: Back to virchow. Lancet 357: 539–545.Google Scholar
  6. Baru, R. 2010. Public sector doctors in an era of commercialisation. In Health providers in India: On the frontlines of change, ed. K. Sheikh and A. George, 81–96. New Delhi: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Basu, A., and B. Ray. 1990. Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s Conference, 1927–1990. New Delhi: Manohar.Google Scholar
  8. Bhattacharya, S. 2006. Expunging Variola: The Control and Eradication of Small-Pox in India, 1947–1977. Hyderabad: Longman.Google Scholar
  9. Bhattacharya, S. 2008. The World Health Organization and global smallpox eradication. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 62 (10): 909–912.Google Scholar
  10. Bianco, G. 2013. The origins of Georges Canguilhem’s Vitalism’: Against the anthropology of irritation. In Vitalism and the scientific image in post-enlightenment life science, ed. Sebastian Normandin and Charles T. Wolfe, 1800–2001. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  11. Bose, S. 1997. Instruments and idioms of colonial and National development. In International development and the social sciences: Essays on the history and politics of knowledge, ed. F. Cooper and R. Packard, 45–63. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  12. Broom, A., and Assa Doron. 2011. The rise of cancer in urban India: Cultural understandings, structural inequalities and the emergence of the clinic. Health 16 (3): 250–266.Google Scholar
  13. Broom, A., K. Kenny, V. Bowden, N. Mupavarram, and M. Chitem. 2017. Cultural ontologies of cancer. Critical Public Health 28 (1): 48–58.Google Scholar
  14. Canguilhem, Georges. 1991. The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett &Robert S. Cohen. New York: Zone Books.Google Scholar
  15. Cervero, F. 2012. Understanding pain: Exploring the perception of pain. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  16. Chatterjee, S., A. Chattopadhyay, S.N. Senapati, et al. 2016. Cancer registration in India—current scenario and future perspectives. Asian Pacific Journal for Cancer Prevention. 17 (8): 3687–3696.Google Scholar
  17. Clark, D. 1999. Total pain, disciplinary power and the body in the work of Cicely Saunders, 1958–1967. Social Science and Medicine 49 (6): 727–736.Google Scholar
  18. Clow, B. 2001. Who’s afraid of Susan Sontag? or, the myths and metaphors of cancer reconsidered. Social History of Medicine 14 (2): 293–312.Google Scholar
  19. Coussens, L.F., and Z. Werb. 2002. Inflammation and Cancer. Nature 6917: 860–867.Google Scholar
  20. Craddock, S.J. 2009. Notes from White Flint: Identity, ambiguity and disparities in cancer. In Confronting cancer: Metaphors, advocacy, and anthropology, ed. Juliet McMullin and Diane Weiner, 165–186. Santa Fe: SAR Press.Google Scholar
  21. Daniels, N., B. Kennedy, and I. Kawachi. 2000. Justice is good for our health. In Is inequality bad for our health?, ed. J. Cohen and J. Rogers. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  22. Delvecchio Good, M.-J., Brodwin, P., Good, B. Kleinman, A. eds. 1992. Pain as human experience: An anthropological perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  23. Forbes, G. 1994. Medical careers and health care for indian women: Patterns of control. Women’s History Review 3 (4): 515–530.Google Scholar
  24. Forbes, G. 1996. Women in modern India, New Cambridge history of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Gandhi, M.K. 1948. Key to Health. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press.Google Scholar
  26. Ganesh, K. 10 March 2016. A woman pioneer in the male world of oncology. The wire, India. 2018.
  27. Hoffman, F. 1936. Cancer in India, Persia and Ceylon. Sankhya, Journal of the Indian Statistical Institute 2 (3): 281–306.Google Scholar
  28. Jain, L. 2013. Malignant: How cancer becomes us. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  29. Jayawardena, K. 1995. The white woman’s other burden: Western women and South Asia during British Colonial rule. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Kannabiran, V., and K. Kannabiran. 2003. Caste and gender: Understanding dynamics of power and violence. In Gender and Caste, ed. A. Rao. New Delhi: Sangam Books.Google Scholar
  31. Kishwar, M. 1985. Gandhi on women. Economic and Political Weekly 20 (40): 1691–1702.Google Scholar
  32. Lakshmi, C.S. 1990. Mother, mother-community and mother-politics in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly. 25, No. 42/43 (Oct. 20–27, 1990): WS72–WS83.Google Scholar
  33. Leopold, E. 2009. Under the radar: Cancer and the cold war. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Livingston, J. 2012. Improvising medicine: An African Oncology ward in an emerging cancer epidemic. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Manderson, L., and C. Smith-Morris. 2010. Chronic conditions, Fluid states: Chronicity and the Anthropology of Illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Moreira, T., and P. Palladino. 2005. Between truth and hope: on Parkinson’s disease, neurotransplantation and the Production of the ‘self’. History of the Human Sciences 3: 55–82.Google Scholar
  37. Moscucci, O. 2016. Gender and Cancer in England, 1860–1948. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  38. Naraindas, H., J. Quack, and W.S. Sax. 2014. Asymmetrical Conversations: Contestations, Circumventions, and the Blurring of Therapeutic Boundaries. New York: Berghahn Books.Google Scholar
  39. Patterson, J. 1987. The dread disease: Cancer and modern American culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Phalkey, J. 2013. Science: History and modern India. Isis 104 (2): 330–336.Google Scholar
  41. Proctor, R. 1999. The Nazi war on cancer. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Rawls, J. 2012. A theory of justice. Harvard: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Reddi, M. 1930. My experience as legislator. Madras: Current Thought Press.Google Scholar
  44. Reddi, M. 1964. Autobiography of Mrs. S. Muthulakshmi Reddy. Press? Madras.Google Scholar
  45. Ruddock, Anna. 2017. Special Medicine: Producing Doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Ph.D Thesis, King’s College: London, Anthropology, 0200945 230-34.Google Scholar
  46. Sangari, K., and Vaid, S. 1980, Recasting Women: Essays in colonial. History (Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1980).Google Scholar
  47. Saunders, B. 2010. JS Mill’s conception of utility. Utilitas 22: 52–69.Google Scholar
  48. Sen, A. 1985. Commodities and capabilities. Amsterdam: North-Holland.Google Scholar
  49. Sen, S. 2000. Toward a feminist politics? The Indian Women’s movement in historical perspective. Gender and development, Working Paper Series No. 9, World Bank: 1–68.Google Scholar
  50. Shah, T. (ed.). 1947. Woman’s role in planned economy: Report of the sub-committee, National Planning Committee series. Bombay: Vora & Co., Publishers.Google Scholar
  51. Siddiqi, M.H. 2005. The British historical context and petitioning in colonial India. New Delhi: Aakar Books.Google Scholar
  52. Sontag, S. 2001. lllness as metaphor and AIDS as metaphor. New York: Picador.Google Scholar
  53. Sur, A. 2002. Scientism and social justice: Meghnad Saha’s critique of the state of science in India. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 33 (1): 87–105.Google Scholar
  54. Thorner, A., and M. Krishnaraj. 2000. Ideals, Images and Real Lives: Women in Literature and History. New Delhi: Sangam Books Limited.Google Scholar
  55. Visvanathan, S. 1985. Organizing for science: The making of an industrial research laboratory. Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Zaloom, C. 2009. The productive life of risk. Cultural Anthropology 19 (3): 365–391.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Sociomedical Sciences Department, Mailman School of Public HealthColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations