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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 149  |  Issue : 7  |  Page : 57-61

Gandhi's Experiments With Health

National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi, India

Date of Submission14-Sep-2018
Date of Web Publication22-Apr-2019

Correspondence Address:
Mr A Annamalai
Director, National Gandhi Museum, Rajghat, New Delhi 110002
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0971-5916.251658

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How to cite this article:
Annamalai A. Gandhi's Experiments With Health. Indian J Med Res 2019;149, Suppl S1:57-61

How to cite this URL:
Annamalai A. Gandhi's Experiments With Health. Indian J Med Res [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Oct 29];149, Suppl S1:57-61. Available from:

The subtitle ('My Experiments with Truth') of Gandhi's autobiography indicates that he was a man of scientific temper and wanted to experiment and experience before accepting anything as Truth. Some of his experiences and experiments led him to discover the unique and unparalleled approach to political struggle called 'Satyagraha'. That matchless non-violent kind of struggle based on Truth and Love brought people all over the world close to Gandhi. He also experimented for many years with healthcare, nutrition and hygiene, and if we examine deeply all the various aspects of his work and experimentation, we find that they are all interconnected and even to some extent interdependent.

Sarojini Naidu, a close associate of Gandhi and a leader of the freedom struggle, once said to him, “How costly it is to keep you simple.” Gandhi, after a pause, said, in a contemplative mood, “Yes, God will forgive me. I have to maintain my body in a healthy way, so that I can carry on my mission.” He was, however, concerned not only with his own health but also with that of many of his colleagues and friends, and also with that of the masses.

   Gandhi'S Own Experiences in Healthcare Top

He was conscious about the importance of his health from his young age. He read about the benefits of long walks in the open air and developed a habit of long walks which gave him a fairly hardy constitution. His early experience in healthcare started when his father was suffering from a fistula; he was one of the attendants to his father. He had the duties of a nurse, which mainly consisted in dressing the wound, giving medicine to his father and compounding drugs whenever they had to be made up at home. Gandhi was thus initiated into the medical service!

In South Africa, his profession progressed in a big way, but it did not give him satisfaction. He said in his Autobiography, “The question of further simplifying my life and of doing some concrete act of service to my fellowmen had been constantly agitating me, when a leper came to my door. I had not the heart to dismiss him with a meal. So I offered him shelter, dressed his wounds, and began to look after him.” But later he was sent to the government hospital for indentured labourers. He further said, “I longed for some humanitarian work of a permanent nature. Dr. Booth was the head of the St. Aidan's Mission. He was a kind-hearted man and treated his patients free. Thanks to Parsi Rustomji's charities, it was possible to open a small charitable hospital under Dr. Booth's charge. I felt strongly inclined to serve as a nurse in this hospital. The work of dispensing medicines took from one or two hours daily, and I made up my mind to find that time from my office work, so as to be able to fill the place of a compounder in the dispensary attached to the hospital… This work brought me some peace. It consisted in ascertaining the patient's complaints, laying the facts before the doctor and dispensing the prescriptions. It brought me in close touch with suffering Indians…”

   Kasturba Top

While in South Africa, when Kasturba was expecting a baby, it was decided by them to have the best medical aid at the time of delivery. However, considering the ground reality regarding the colour prejudices of white doctors and nurses and the absence of trained Indian nurses in South Africa, Gandhi tried to study what was necessary for safe labour.

Gandhi described in his Autobiography, “My wife and I had decided to have the best medical aid at the time of her delivery, but if the doctor and the nurse were to leave us in the lurch at the right moment, what was I to do? Then the nurse had to be an Indian. And the difficulty of getting a trained Indian nurse in South Africa can be easily imagined from the similar difficulty in India. So I studied the things necessary for safe labour. I read Dr. Tribhuvandas' book, Ma-ne Shikhaman – Advice to a mother – and I nursed both my children according to the instructions given in the book, tempered here and there by experiences as I had gained elsewhere. The services of a nurse were utilized – not for more than two months each time – chiefly for helping my wife, and not for taking care of the babies, which I did myself.”

There was no time to summon a doctor or nurse because Kasturba got the labour pain so suddenly and the birth came quickly. Once again the birth was difficult but this time Gandhi delivered the baby safely all by himself! Devadas, Gandhi's last son, was born on May 23, 1900. Gandhi said, “The birth of the last child put me to the severest test. The travail came on suddenly. The doctor was not immediately available, and some time was lost in fetching the midwife. Even if she had been on the spot, she could not have helped delivery. I had to see through the safe delivery of the baby. My careful study of the subject in Dr. Tribhuvandas' work was of inestimable help. I was not nervous.

“I am convinced that for the proper upbringing of children the parents ought to have a general knowledge of the care and nursing of babies. At every step I have seen the advantages of my careful study of the subject.”

While working among the indentured labourers in South Africa, there was always a criticism that Indians were slovenly and unclean in their habits. Therefore, Gandhi organized a series of successful “sanitation” campaigns and still his interest in public health and his love of medicine endured. At the same time he also continued his voluntary service in hospital work.

[TAG:2]Medical Services During Plague[/TAG:2]

In 1902, there was an outbreak of plague in India and Gandhi asked Dr. Pranjivan Mehta to write a handbook on treatment of plague-infected patients and it was distributed among the volunteers.

Later in South Africa, Sjt. Madanjit sent a note to Gandhi saying, “There has been a sudden outbreak of the black plague. You must come immediately and take prompt measures, otherwise we must be prepared for dire consequences. Please come immediately.” Dr. William Godfrey also rushed to the place and acted as a doctor and a nurse, but twenty-three patients were more than three of them could cope with. The municipality thanked him for this prompt action and supplied him with disinfectants and also sent a nurse. He gave medical aid and cleaned the patient's beds, sat by their bedside at night and cheered them up.

   Medical Services During Boer War and Zulu Rebellion Top

Gandhi founded Indian Ambulance Corps in 1899 to serve as a medical aid volunteer group in the Boer War. The group was trained by Dr. Booth and given “basic medical instruction, including first aid, the dressing of wounds, ambulance training and the administering of medication.” Gandhi recollected the services rendered in the Boer War, “We soon got work and that too harder than we had expected. To carry the wounded seven or eight miles was part of our ordinary routine. But sometimes we had to carry badly wounded soldiers and officers over a distance of twenty-five miles. The march would commence at eight in the morning, medicines must be administered on the way, and we were required to reach the base-hospital at five. This was very hard work indeed.” But the services rendered by the Indians were widely appreciated by the English. “This incident has a twofold lesson for us. First, we should not despise any man, however humble or insignificant looking he may be. Secondly, no matter how timid a man is, he is capable of the loftiest heroism when he is put to the test.”

During the Zulu Rebellion, Gandhi again organized Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps. Gandhi narrated the services rendered, “Dr. Savage, who was in charge of the ambulance, was himself a very humane person. It was no part of our duty to nurse the wounded after we had taken them to the hospital. But we had joined the war with a desire to do all we could, no matter whether it did or did not fall within the scope of our work. The good Doctor told us that he could not induce Europeans to nurse the Zulus, that it was beyond his power to compel them and that he would feel obliged if we undertook this mission of mercy. We were only too glad to do this. We had to cleanse the wounds of several Zulus which had not been attended to for as many as five or six days and were therefore stinking horribly. We liked the work. The Zulus could not talk to us, but from their gestures and the expression of their eyes they seemed to feel as if God had sent us to their succour.”

On the way back to India, Gandhi stayed for a few months in London where he appealed to form the Ambulance Corps. Lt. Gen. D.R. Thapar, who was perhaps the first Indian head of the Armed Forces Medical Services in the 1950s, had started his medical career by joining the Ambulance Corps that was set upon Gandhiji's initiative in London in 1914.

Gandhi had a glum, ferocious, uncommunicative African jail mate attendant. One day, he was stung by a scorpion. He was screaming like anything and Gandhi saw this intolerable pain. He immediately took the African's hand and washed it clean and he started sucking the injured area. He was extracting the poisoned blood as much as he could and spitting out. He was relieved from pain. Gandhi applied tincture and bandaged his arm. He became Gandhi's devotee thereafter.

   Experienceing Western Treatment Top

Gandhi, just recuperating from dysentery, started taking goat's milk. On January 21, 1919, Dr. Dalal, his family doctor, performed on him a successful operation for fissures in Bombay.

Allopathic drugs were not taboo. During a cholera epidemic in Sevagram, he allowed the villagers and the ashramites to get vaccinated.

Gandhi was admitted at the Sassoon Hospital on emergency medical care. Gandhi was then in Pune, serving his six-year sentence in a sedition case since 1922. However, two years later he was required to undergo an emergency appendectomy to remove an inflamed appendix and the surgery began on the night of January 12, 1924 as a thunderstorm raged on. The surgeon who operated on Gandhi was a British colonel, Maddock. While the surgery was in progress, the electric bulb went off. The appendectomy had then to be finished by the light of a hurricane lamp. Gandhi and Kasturba thanked the surgeon, nurse and the entire medical team and took a photograph with them. During his visit to London in 1931, he met Col. Maddock on a courtesy visit.

During Manu's appendectomy operation in Patna, Gandhi wanted to observe the whole operation. Noted in Gandhi's diary on May 15, 1947, “Manu has a severe stomach-ache, she also had vomiting and is running temperature. I therefore called in the doctors who examined her. Manu's complaint was diagnosed as appendicitis. I had her removed to the hospital immediately. She will be operated upon at night. I called back Madalasa and Santok. They came. Watched Manu's operation at the hospital. Mridula and Madu were keeping her company. But they were not allowed inside the operation theatre. I had put on a surgical mask and watched the whole operation. She was taken to the room upstairs at 10.30. I entrusted her to the doctor's care and returned at 11.10. I went to bed after 11.30. Dr. Col. Bhargava performed the operation.”

In the letter to Jaisukhlal Gandhi, father of Manubehn Gandhi, on the next day, Gandhi said, “I had suspected even in Delhi that it was appendicitis. I had hoped that treatment with mud-pack would help her to get well. But it did not help her sufficiently. I, therefore, called in the doctors yesterday. They advised an operation, and I therefore got her operated upon.”

   Gandhi'S Ciritical View of Doctors Top

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi criticized doctors and said, “How do these diseases arise? Surely by our negligence or indulgence. I overeat, I have indigestion, I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine, I am cured. I overeat again, I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me and I would not have overeaten again. The Doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself.”

In the context of the commercialization of medical services, the above observation of Gandhi is still appropriate. Today, healthcare is the costly affair. Gandhi was a practical idealist by all means. Therefore, he wanted to test all other systems of medicines in order to help the masses and provide affordable alternatives to the people at large. The medical fraternity should consider this noble profession as a service and find out ways and means to reach out to the 'so far' unreached.

   Financial Support & Sponsorship: Top

   Conflicts of Interest: Top

   References Top

Bandopadhyaya A. Bahuroopi Gandhi. Popular Prakashan, Bombay; 1964.

Gandhi A. Untold Story of Kasturba. Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai; 2000.

Gandhi M. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 20002001.

Gandhi MK. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1927.

Gandhi MK. Hind Swaraj. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1938.

Gandhi MK. Satyagraha in South Africa. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 1968.

Iyengar S. Health Care – Which Way to Go.

Lindley M. Gandhi on Health. Gandhi Research Foundation; 2018.

Varma R. Gandhi: In Anecdotes. Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad; 2001.


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