The NMJI

VOLUME 18, NUMBER 6

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2005

Obituary

Asoke Kumar Bagchi [PDF]
(26 November 1925–18 October 2005)

Dr Asoke Bagchi passed on to the happy hunting grounds on Tuesday, 18 October 2005. He was 80 years young. Over the past few years he had been handicapped by the consequences of his cardiac and neurological ailments but his spirit remained indomitable.
  Dr Bagchi completed his undergraduate education from Edward College in Pabna, now in Bangladesh, and joined the Carmichael Medical College in Calcutta in 1943. His participation in the Quit India Movement in 1942 had ensured that he was not given a seat in the Calcutta Medical College run by the Government. Dr Bagchi was proud of his alma mater and never failed to point out that this was the first private medical college to be founded in India. In 1947, it was renamed the R.G. Kar Medical College.
  During his undergraduate studies, Dr Bagchi obtained 5 gold and 12 silver medals for proficiency in studies. It was not all work. He represented his college in hockey and was a reputed thespian, producing and starring in plays by Shakespeare, Shaw and Gogol among other western authors and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bonophul (Boloi Chand Mukho-padhyay) and Dwijendralal Ray among the Bengali authors.
  After the Partition of India (1947), Dr Bagchi travelled with Mahatma Gandhi through the riot-torn Noakhali district of East Bengal (now in Bangladesh). He took charge of a refugee camp in Sandwip, a remote island in the Bay of Bengal and supervised the migration of Hindu refugees.
Resuming his medical studies, he worked with Professor
  L. M. Banerjee, the first Master of Surgery from the University of Calcutta and a classmate in London of Sir Gordon-Gordon Taylor. Dr Bagchi also recalled being taught by Dr B. Mitra, the first person from Bengal to obtain the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in London and by Dr K. P. Das who wrote the first Indian text on clinical surgery. (Dr Bagchi recalled that Dr Das developed acromegaly and died of pituitary apoplexy.)
  Dr Bagchi’s lifelong connection with Germany started through his professor of pathology. Dr D. N. Banerjee was a pupil of Ludwig Aschoff in Freiburg-im-Brisgau. Dr Bagchi not only inherited his love for the history of medicine from Dr Banerjee but was also given several old and valuable books from Dr Banerjee’s personal library. Dr Bagchi later excelled his teacher and published a stream of books on medical history. Especially memorable are the volume on Nobel prize winners, and those entitled Great women of sciences, Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray: A jewel of India and Rabindranath Tagore and his medical world.
  Dr Bagchi’s training in neurosurgery was at the Wiener Allgemeines Krankenhaus in Vienna. There, in the institution made famous by Theodor Billroth and Anton von Eiselsberg, he worked under the guidance of Dr Leopold Schoenbauer and
  Dr Herbert Kraus. It was during his vacation visit to the clinic of Dr Wilhelm Tonnis in Cologne that Dr Bagchi met Dr Hans Werner Pia. A lifelong friendship developed and Professor Pia visited India at Dr Bagchi’s invitation to conduct the first workshop on microneurosurgery in this country.
  After completing his training in neurosurgery, Dr Bagchi was scheduled to join the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit when
  Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray came to Vienna. Dr Bagchi was introduced to him and Dr Ray was especially happy to meet the son of his old student, Dr Dwijadas Bagchi. At Dr Ray’s invitation, Dr Bagchi joined the S.S.K.M. Hospital, Kolkata in 1955 and was able to invite Dr Kraus as a visiting professor. The teacher and the student set up the first department of neurosurgery in Bengal. The removal of a right frontal meningioma from Mr Bangur, the industrialist, led to a large donation and the creation of the institute of neurology named after the donor. Dr Bagchi instituted an award by the Neurological Society of India in honour of Dr Kraus.
  Dr Bagchi has touched the minds and hearts of innumerable persons in the field of neurosciences here and abroad by his ebullience, jovial nature and amazing memory. Once he had met you and enjoyed your company, he was your friend for life and could instantly recall every detail he had ever learnt about you and your family. He never failed to ask after your spouse and children, rejoicing in their welfare.
  At meetings of the Neurological Society of India, he would regale friends with anecdotes and historical details. The origin of words interested him greatly and he was fond of asking those around him how a particular word came into being. When puzzlement was evident, he would triumphantly inform and instruct. This enthusiasm for philology led to the publication of his volume entitled Sanskrit and modern medical vocabulary: A comparative study. It remains a work of reference.
  His jokes and ready humour hid his scholarship. I recall the late Dr R. N. Chatterjee warning me, ‘Do not be misled by Dr Bagchi’s light-heartedness. Beneath his apparent buffoonery lies a respected intellectual.’
  His intellect was sharp and he readily saw through anyone trying to pull the wool over his eyes. I recall an instance when he was an external examiner for the Master’s degree in Neurosurgery at the University of Bombay. I was the local convenor of the examination. On the second day of the examination, he received an invitation to tea at the home of the then Dean of the Grant Medical College. I had not been included in the invitation but Dr Bagchi insisted that I accompany him despite my reluctance to do so. As soon as we entered the Dean’s residence, we saw a candidate who was appearing for the examination chatting with the Dean. On seeing me with Dr Bagchi, there was evident consternation. The candidate was briefly introduced to us and left shortly thereafter. The subsequent conversation was desultory and we soon made our exit. As we emerged from the flat, Dr Bagchi asked me, ‘Do you see why I insisted you accompany me?’ As I have remained puzzled, he explained: ‘The Dean has never invited me to his home though I have known him for a long time. When he asked me to visit him this time, I smelt a rat.’ With a chuckle, he continued, ‘Fortunately, the rat left soon after he saw you!’ Obviously, the candidate, prominent in the Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors, had prevailed upon his Dean to speak on his behalf to the external examiner, with a view to influencing the results. He had not anticipated Dr Bagchi’s perspicacity. In the event, the candidate was declared failed.
  Dr Bagchi wore his honours lightly. He was especially happy when he was awarded the DLitt by the University of Burdwan. He will long be remembered, especially through his numerous publications in languages as diverse as Bengali, German, Spanish and English.

S. K. PANDYA
Department of Neurosurgery
Jaslok Hospital
Mumbai
shunil@vsnl.com

 

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