Saturday, July 18, 2015

WHO WAS THE FIRST INDIAN TO DISSECT A HUMAN BODY?... A Historical Controversy or Controversial History?...

A glimpse of the title would certainly raise some eyebrows. Reply from the majority should be Sushruta, as expected. But NO...WAIT...HOLD ON... I am not among those campaigners who claim that every element of modern science, from nuclear weaponry to aircraft, were invented in Ancient India. Though Sushruta, the Father of Surgery and a famous practitioner of ancient Indian medicine was a historical figure indeed. His literary work Sushruta Samhita is identified as a well documented outstanding commentary on Medical Science of Surgery. But my research's spotlight is on modern science only.

Anatomy is widely appreciated as being one of the cornerstones of medical education. Learning anatomy through the dissected cadaver is viewed as the uniquely defining feature of medical courses. Explosion of knowledge in the field of medicine was feasible due to exploration of human body through human cadaver dissection.

But Dissection was once a taboo subject in India. Due to native prejudices and superstitions, it was impossible to cultivate a cadaver, be it a human body or a carcass. But the scenario began to improve with the establishment of the Medical College (later became known as Calcutta Medical College) by an order of 28th January, 1835. The new college ushered in a new era in the history of Indian medical education. It was the first institution imparting a systematic teaching of western medicine in India. Dr. M J Bramley was appointed as the first superintendent. Surgeon Dr. H H Goodeve joined as the professor of medicine and anatomy. Only one member of the staff of the erstwhile Native Medical Institution, Pandit Madhusudan Gupta, an Ayurvedic practitioner trained in western medicine was transferred to the new college.

In 1836, Pandit Gupta broke the prevalent social taboos and came forward to dissect the human corpse. He was the first Indian to do so. Defying the ancient prejudice, on 28th October, 1836 (? 10th January, 1836, disputed) Pandit Madhusudan Gupta carried out the dissection work on a dead body with the assistance of four students who were Rajkrishna Dey, Umacharan Sett, Dwarkanath Gupta and Nabin Chandra Mitra. This achievement was almost as important as Macaulay's Minute. The momentous event was duly celebrated, in rather militaristic fashion, by firing a fifty-round salute from the guns of Calcutta Fort William. It was also Asia's first human dissection. 

A few questions come up here. First, why was the first human cadaveric dissection so much important to the British authority almost to the extent of military victory? Second, why has Madhusudan been given so much importance by colonial officials and historians as well as the enlightened Bengali People?

There could be one common answer. Dissection of a cadaver by any high-caste Indian was the first phenomenal step in the direction of modern medical education. It is perhaps one of the reasons why so much importance is attached to the first dissection and the individual dissector. In 1847, in a letter to the editor of the Lancet, H H Goodeve wrote, "The most important blow which has been struck at the roof of native prejudices and superstition, was accomplished by the establishment of the Medical College of Calcutta and the introduction of practical anatomy as a part of professional education of Brahmins and Rajpoots who may now be seen dissecting with an avidity...who know their strong religious prejudices...

In commemoration of this act that Dr. Drinkwater Bethune, a member of the Supreme Council of India presented to the College in 1850, a portrait of Madhusudan painted by Mrs. Belnos (picture above) which was later shifted to Victoria Memorial Hall during the 150 years celebration of the Calcutta Medical College.

But is it justified to give credit only to Pandit Gupta? Read on, the story is not yet finished...

More than six decades later, R Havelock Charles, Professor of Surgical and Descriptive Anatomy, Calcutta Medical College and Surgeon of the hospital, gave a detailed account of this feat in 1899. He remembered, "The most interesting feature is that in 1835 the Hindu prejudice against touching dead bodies first gave away, and much credit must be given to the original class of eleven students who had the courage to breakthrough the iron bonds of caste and engage in the dissection of human body." He summarily stated "The Pandit passed his examination in 1840 and as I write, I have a copy of his diploma before me. The students whose names I have mentioned were examined and passed in 1838, yet the Pandit alone is remembered, his predecessors are forgotten."

Without more thorough study into this sub-layer of history of medicine, it would be too hasty to affirmatively accept or deny the role of Madhusudan Gupta as the first dissector in India. It can be extrapolated that with his background training, Gupta was ready to bear the onus of dissection to the extent of ostracism, even if not the first dissector.

However, contradictory evidences do not belittle the position of Pandit Madhusudan Gupta in the history of modern anatomical knowledge in India. He is historically tied up with this process of trnasformation of medicine.

  • Hidden Calcutta by Shri Rathin Mitra
  • The first dissection controversy: introduction to anatomical education in Bengal and British India by Shri Jayanta Bhattacharya, an article without which this story could not be constructed.  


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Sir...Please keep visiting...

  2. I am happy to see that younger people have not unthinkingly accepted Madhusudan Gupta as the first dissector. In my paper "The first dissection controversy" I tried to problematise the prevailing notion. The question of the first dissection should be placed within a broader socioeconomic and political world of colonial India. Thank you Soham!

    1. Thank you Sir for reading. Glad to know that you liked the post. Without your article, the post wouldn't have been possible. Thank you once again.

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