Somervell: Missionary doctor who clinched Olympic medal

Thiruvananthapuram, Jul 22: With the London Olympics less than a week away, Keralites have reason to turn nostalgic, remembering a British doctor who won a medal and later made Travancore his home as a medical missionary.

Almost nine decades ago, when mountaineering was an Olympic discipline, Dr TH Somervell received a medal in the summer games in Paris in 1924 and later spent many years in the princely state of Travancore as a medical missionary.

He played a vital role in introducing modern medicine to South India as the leading light of Neyyoor Medical Mission, and set up London Missionary Society (LMS) in a remote village near Nagarcoil, now in Tamil Nadu.

It was only recently that his family members came to know their illustrious forebear was an Olympic medal winner. He was part of an expedition to the summit of the world in 1922.

According to his biographers, Dr Theodore Howard Somervell (1890-1975) came to India as a mountaineer but spent much of his career in Travancore (south Kerala) as medical missionary. Though it was lure of the Everest that brought him to India, many people still remember him as a kind doctor.

Utradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, head of the Travancore royal family, recalled that the British surgeon was very busy but never failed to attend to the medical needs of the royal family members on their demand.

Travancore at the time was a princely state and present Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, the nerve centre of the work of LMS, part of it. "Somervell used to visit our palace and attended to us whenever we requested. He was very popular in Travancore. I still remember that he treated me also once when I suffered from tonsilitis when I was a boy," the Maharaja told PTI.

He worked at LMS hospital in Neyyoor, now in Kanyakumari district. Besides his expertise as a surgeon, his kindness and compassion made him a revered figure, Marthanda Varma said.

Local historians have it that Somervell came to India as part of the second British expedition to Himalayas in 1922, aged 32. Though the expedition failed, he stayed back for an extensive India tour, taking him to places like Delhi, Sarnath, Benares and finally to Neyyoor.

On a request from his friend Dr S H Pugh,a fellow British medical missionary in charge of the LMS hospital, Somervell agreed to work at Neyoor. Though he left for Britain for a short stay, he returned to the town in 1923 determined to serve the people of the princely state.

He brought with him a substantial supply of of medical provisions and devices like an oil-run dynamo, X-ray machine, wiring material and equipment for lighting. The doctor frequently went around every nook and cranny of rural south Travancore, mostly by foot, to heal the poor and needy.

People began to consider him a divine figure when he reached their doorsteps in times of outbreak of epidemics like cholera and small pox. The credit for setting up the first X-ray unit in South India goes to him.

On realising that cancer, especially affliction of mouth, was widely prevalent among men and women in the region due to chewing of tobacco, he introduced radium treatment at Neyoor hospital for the first time in India.

In Somervell's words, "Such is the appalling frequency of cancer especially of the mouth that is strikingly evident that present supply of radium, able though it is to treat some 200 cases every year, is hopelessly insufficient."

Somervell also performed hundreds of surgeries every month during a period when operations were rare and the survival rate thin. After long and fruitful years at Neyyoor, Somervell retired in 1945.

He came back to Neyyoor in 1948 after Independence and took over the medical mission's Superintendent and chairman of the Medical Board. He went to Vellore Medical College in Tamil Nadu later to share his experiences with doctors and students.

In honour of his selfless services, the CSI hospital at nearby Karakonam has been named after Somervell.

After leaving for England in 1954, he wrote: "...if I had not the gone to India at the call of suffering I should never have dared to look God in the face nor say prayers to Him again. Nobody who saw such need could neglect to relieve."

Somervell died of a heart attack on January 23 1975 at the age of 85 in England.


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