Sarat Kumar Mullick (?-1924)

Sarat K. Mullick was a medical man who practised in England and India, and who passionately campaigned for medical reforms in India and for rights and respect to be given to Indian practitioners and the public.

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Mullick’s obituary in the BMJ (1925).

Little is written about Mullick’s early life, though comments in the medical press suggest that he came from Bengal. He was educated at Calcutta University and at some point moved to Britain, where he was trained at St Mary’s Hospital and qualified through the University of Edinburgh. By the 1890s Mullick was working as Assistant Physician to the National Hospital for Heart and Paralysis in Soho-square, and by 1900, he was Assistant Physician to the Hospital of St Francis in London.

Medical reform appears to have been his principal concern, but he was also interested in clinical matters. He was active in the British Medical Association’s (BMA) sections of Tropical Diseases; Pharmacology and Therapeutics; and Medicine. BMA proceedings show him commenting on matters ranging from influenza and the nervous system,[1] to sprue (a malabsorption disease of the gastrointestinal tract).[2] He seems to have been particularly invested in dietetics. In 1900 he took part in discussions on ‘Diet in the Treatment of Disease’. He advocated a ‘dietetic ladder’ by which gastric invalids could be ‘raised by degrees to full diet, without undue strain on digestion’.[3] He also agreed with some of his colleagues that the ‘greatest of modern ills was excessive drinking and eating’.[4]

Mullick published some of his clinical observations. In 1899, the BMJ featured his article on tropical diseases which might be encountered in general practice in England, including malaria, dysentery and hepatitis.[5]

In the medical press and the BMA, Mullick was an outspoken campaigner. In 1898 he wrote to the Lancet to challenge its coverage of plague measures in India. Significantly, he accused the journal of misrepresenting Indian people. He insisted that they did not resist legitimate measures and pointed to their own practices of disinfection, isolation and inoculation. He countered,

What [the Indian people] really object to (and what self-respecting nation would not?) is the arbitrary and high-handed manner in which the orders of the Government are executed […] it is a notorious fact that the feelings of the people were grievously trampled upon.[6]

His letter further emphasised that the English public had resisted public health measures such as vaccination for smallpox.

Mullick also campaigned for a system of medical registration to be introduced to India, in the interests of patients and practitioners. At the 1899 BMA meeting, he said registration was needed to ‘protect the public from the mischievous machinations of charlatans’ and he called upon the Association to do ‘all in its power’ to bring about change. The motion was ‘carried unanimously’.[7] However, he felt the need to put forward a similar motion at the 1901 meeting; this time it was withdrawn due to opposition which emphasised the supposed obstacles to registration being successfully introduced.[8]

During this time, Mullick also called for greater opportunities for medical men of Indian descent. At the BMA’s 1899 meeting, he put forward a resolution on behalf of a colleague (Dr T.M. Nair) who was unable to leave India. The resolution complained that civil appointments in India were monopolised by the Indian Medical Service (IMS), and called for them to be thrown open to competition.[9] A year later, Mullick put forward his own motion, which protested against the system by which IMS officials were appointed as professorial chairs in India’s medical colleges based on rank. He said this nepotism was ‘prejudicial to the interest of medical education and sanitation’ and was ‘a sinister bar to the advancement of original research in India’. He called for an inquiry to investigate.[10]

The matter was referred to the BMA’s Indian Military Medical Services Committee, which pushed Mullick to produce evidence to substantiate his controversial claims. The Committee endorsed the position of Surgeon-General Harvey (Director-General of the IMS), who contested Mullick’s remarks. Drawing on common imperialist rhetoric, Harvey maintained that the IMS was ‘open to all natives who choose to compete’ (by taking the London-based examinations) but that it ‘would be most undesirable to open it to men who have never left India, and are ignorant of Western manners and modes of thought’.[11]

In 1901, Mullick wrote to the BMJ attacking the Committee – led by James Barr (later President of the BMA) – for its failure to engage with his evidence. He suggested that the Committee was ‘utterly unfit to deal with such an important question’.[12] When the Committee sought to discredit his claims, Mullick lambasted Barr for sharing his evidence publicly rather than treating it confidentially. Mullick insisted he did ‘not care a jot or tittle for the personal attacks which ha[d] been made’ on him, but emphasised the importance of protecting whistleblowers and called for a system of ‘fair play’ for the men of India. Mullick disputed Harvey’s claims that the IMS was fairly open to Indian-born men. Slamming this ‘old fallacy’, he pointed out that Harvey

wisely omits the facts that the Indians have to leave their homes, have to risk the dangers and expense of a long and perilous sea voyage to England, and have to compete in a foreign language with men who are in their own homes, who have received the same training as their examiners, and whose mother tongue is the vehicle of examination. How would the Englishman feel if, in order to serve in England he had to find the money to go to India, to separate himself from all that is near and dear to him, to live in exile in an inhospitable climate amongst a strange people differing from him as the poles asunder, and then compete in an Indian language on the off-chance of being successful.[13]

Mullick also wrote to the Lancet and Indian Medical Record with these claims. In similar language, he described how Indians who travelled to the metropole would ‘risk the perils of the deep, leave their hearth and home, and everything that is near and dear to them, to spend a number of years in an inhospitable climate’.[14] In these letters, Mullick shrewdly reversed the trope of British men leaving their domestic comforts to work in a hostile tropical climate.

In response to this criticism, Barr derided Mullick’s evidence as insubstantial and baseless: ‘I should now like to know what “code of honour,” if any, written or unwritten, regulates Dr. Mullick’s conduct’, he wrote in the BMJ. Barr’s rejoinder was underpinned by racist attitudes, as he accused Mullick’s proposals of benefiting none but ‘a few imperfectly-educated Indian medical men who had never left their native country’.[15]

Despite facing such condescension, Mullick continued to agitate for the rights of his Indian colleagues. In 1901, he moved that graduates and licentiates of Indian universities should be eligible for regular membership of the BMA. He bemoaned the fact that the Indian Branches were dominated by a handful of army doctors who were not representative of Indian medical communities. Since the Metropolitan Branch had rejected his motion, he wrote to the BMJ to appeal to a wider body of BMA members. He argued that the inclusion of Indian qualified practitioners ‘would increase the prestige and purpose of the Association by spreading that esprit de corps which is such a potent factor in keeping our profession pure’.[16]

By 1902, the Lancet reported that Mullick had returned to India, where he had been lecturing in Mysore among other places. The column commended him for giving ‘good advice’ to young Indians, urging them to travel and see England. He also counselled them that it was possible to ‘live as vegetarians and total abstainers’, indicating his continued interest in dietetics. The column referred to Mullick’s campaigning activities, noting that – during the past summer – he had ‘strongly advocated the claims of native medical men’ to certain posts in India.[17]

Hereafter, Mullick lived and worked in India, where he became Secretary of the Bengali Regiment Committee. His BMJ obituary would later brand him an ‘ardent advocate of military service’ in Bengal.[18] During the First World War, he raised the Bengali Ambulance Corps, which served in Mesopotamia. He also helped induce the Government to enrol a Bengali battalion for combatant service. Mullick became President of the Indian Territorial Force Committee.

During the course of his rich and varied career, Mullick gradually won recognition. In 1914 he was appointed to the Bengal Council of Medical Registration.[19] (Medical registration was introduced to Bengal in 1912 and extended to other Presidencies in 1914.) In 1918, Mullick was also awarded a CBE for his wartime work.[20] In his final decades he was professor of medicine and clinical medicine at the National Medical College of India, and physician to the King’s Hospital in Calcutta. He also edited the Medical and Surgical Journal of the Tropics. When he died from pneumonia in 1924, the BMJ proclaimed him ‘one of the leading medical men in Calcutta’ and described how he had taken ‘a leading part in medical politics in India’.[21] Despite earlier attempts to discredit and undermine him, this passionate advocate had at last secured his standing among the British and Indian medical communities.

[1] ‘Sixty-Eighth Annual Meeting of the BMA: Proceedings of Section: Section of Medicine: A Discussion on Influenza as it Affects the Nervous System’, BMJ, 29 September 1900, pp. 877-85 (p. 882).

[2] ‘Sixty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the BMA: Proceedings of Sections: Section of Tropical Disease: A Discussion on Psilosis or Sprue’, BMJ, 9 September 1899, pp. 637-42 (p. 641).

[3] ‘The British Medical Association: The Sections: Pharmacology and Therapeutics’, Lancet, 18 August 1900, pp. 514-5 (p. 514).

[4] ‘Section of Pharmacology and Therapeutics: A Discussion on Diet in the Treatment of Disease’, BMJ, 13 October 1900, pp. 1081-2 (p. 1081).

[5] Sarat K. Mullick, ‘Some of the More Common Forms of Tropical Diseases Met with in General Practice in England’, BMJ, 9 September 1899, pp. 659-60.

[6] Mullick, ‘Correspondence: The Plague in India’, Lancet, 5 November 1898, pp. 1227-8.

[7] ‘The British Medical Association: The General Meetings: The First General Meeting’, Lancet, 5 August 1899, pp. 372-3 (p. 373).

[8] ‘The British Medical Association: The General Meetings: The Third General Meeting’, Lancet, 17 August 1901, pp. 465-6 (p. 466).

[9] ‘Sixty-Seventh Annual Meeting of the BMA’, BMJ, 5 August 1899, pp. 365-71 (p. 368). For more on the history of the IMS, see Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India: Anglo-Indian Preventive Medicine, 1859-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 6-35.

[10] ‘British Medical Association: Notices of Motion’, BMJ, 21 July 1900, pp. 196-7 (p. 196).

[11] Robert Harvey, ‘The Indian Medical Service’, BMJ, 14 September 1901, pp. 720-22 (p. 721).

[12] Mullick, ‘Correspondence: Indian Medical Reform and the British Medical Association’, BMJ, 20 July 1901, p. 182.

[13] Mullick, ‘Correspondence: Indian Medical Reform and the British Medical Association’, BMJ, 14 September 1901, pp. 745-6 (p. 746).

[14] Mullick, ‘Correspondence: The Indian Medical Profession’, Lancet, 13 April 1901, pp. 1105-6 (p. 1106).

[15] James Barr, ‘Correspondence: Dr. Sarat K. Mullick and Indian Medical Reform’, BMJ, 5 October 1901, pp. 1013-14.

[16] Mullick, ‘Correspondence: The Report of the Constitution Committee: Indian Practitioners and Membership of the Association’, BMJ, 27 April 1901, p. 1052.

[17] ‘Notes from India’, Lancet, 11 January 1902, pp. 122-3.

[18] ‘Dr. Sarat Kumar Mullick’, BMJ, 3 January 1925, p. 53.

[19] ‘The Bengal Medical Council’, Lancet, 21 November 1914, p. 1216.

[20] ‘New Year Honours’, BMJ, 12 January 1918, p. 67.

[21] ‘Dr. Sarat Kumar Mullick’, p. 53.

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