WG King: The Englishman who banished plague from Madras’ shores

When erstwhile Madras came under the attack of plague in October 1897, Colonel WG King, the first Sanitary Commissioner of the city, effected contact tracing through ‘plague passports’ which in turn prevented a major outbreak of the disease in the city

King’s memory lives on in the form of the institution that he nurtured to become the provincial laboratory for the Madras Presidency, the King Institute of Preventive Medicine and Research.

Our city Chennai aka Madras has been in the throes of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic much like the rest of the country since early 2020. And it has battled its way through the two waves of the pandemic, thanks to the untiring efforts of the medical community, the civic administration and the successive governments.

As we move towards a semblance of normalcy and celebrate Madras Week and Madras Day 2022, it would be appropriate to pay tribute to a man whom the Indian Medical Gazette in 1908 called the ‘best sanitary commissioner’ in India – Colonel WG King – and his efforts in containing plague in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

Born in 1851, Walter Gaven King graduated with a MBCM degree in 1873 from the University of Aberdeen and joined the Indian Medical Service the following year. He was posted to the Madras Presidency and after two years of service with various Madras Infantry units and other regiments, he was appointed surgeon to the then governor. It was the time when the Presidency was battling one of its worst famines, with a cholera pandemic adding to the troubles of the administration. King’s work in the study of the epidemiology of cholera was greatly recognised and he steadily moved up the ranks.

Colonel WG King. Photo: Madras Musings

In 1882, he was appointed Professor of Hygiene at the Medical College. In 1890, he was appointed the Inspector of Vaccination. His experiments on the relative efficacies of Lanolin and Vaseline as preserving mediums for smallpox vaccine were at the forefront of his work on preventive medicine. At his repeated requests, the then government of Madras established a central animal vaccine depot for the Presidency, whose work he later expanded to include bacteriological diagnosis and preparation of prophylactic and curative sera and vaccines. In 1892, he was appointed the Sanitary Commissioner of Madras, an association that lasted till 1905.

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As Sanitary Commissioner, King was responsible for several changes in the organisation of the vaccination and sanitary departments of the Madras Presidency. It was during his regime that a Department for Public Health was constituted for the first time in the Indian Empire. In 1894, he was instrumental in developing a course in the Madras Medical College for training sanitary instructors who were employed by the local bodies, the first initiative of its kind in the country. The government’s recognition of their certification preceded similar recognition granted to sanitary inspectors in England.

In September 1896, the first case of plague in India was reported in Bombay. Since its origins a few years earlier, it had travelled across the seas and had reached Hong Kong by 1894. King immediately issued a circular to the medical officers of the port, warning them of its entrance to the Presidency. When news of it breaching Indian shores and affecting Bombay two years later reached, King advised the local bodies in the Presidency to adopt plague passports, which would enable tracking movement of people from plague affected areas to other parts.

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That this was before the passing of the Epidemic Diseases Act, which the government of Madras used to legalise this form of surveillance, speaks of his proactive efforts at containing the plague. Madras city got its first brush with the plague in October 1897, which nearly led to a disaster before it was contained, thanks to the tracing of the cases through the passport system. In 1903, nearly 79,500 passports were issued, with approximately only 2 per cent of the holders not being traceable. It was not until 1905 that a localised outbreak near Cassimode (Kasimdedu) and neighbouring villages attributed to unsanitary conditions in a Mauritius-Fiji Emigration Depot in the vicinity that the city had its first, and thankfully only major outbreak of the disease.

It was during King’s tenure as Sanitary Commissioner that several manuals in the form of the Madras Plague Regulations and Rules were issued for the management of plague. Separate rules and regulations were released for Madras city for the inspection of inbound and outward vessels and for the mofussil places. The ones for Madras city which are available online make for interesting reading. The plague passports were to be issued at three places – for those arriving by the Madras Railway at the Perambur Railway station, for those arriving by ship at the Madras Harbour and for those by the East Coast Railway at the Bitragunta Railway station in Nellore district.

People arriving from a plague affected area had to report for 10 days for inspection of their health status at camps set up for the purpose. Any sudden sickness on arrival had to be reported. The passport examiners had to maintain a register containing details such as date of arrival, state of health of the traveller and other persons living in the house, number of days kept in observation etc. Hotels, chuttrams and other places of public resort had to report the arrival of any person from any area notified as being affected by the plague.

The fact that the city remained largely unaffected by the plague, but for the outbreak in 1905 mentioned above and the fact that there was no major outbreak in the Presidency for over 15 years, while cities like Bombay and Calcutta suffered year after year, did not go unnoticed. An Advisory committee, appointed jointly by the then Secretary of State for India, the Royal Society and the Lister Institute was set up in 1913 to enquire into the reasons for the city’s apparent immunity. While it concluded that the physical features and the local climate may have had a role to play as natural deterrents, the artificial influence in the form of an energetic sanitary administration and the method of passport surveillance in preventing persons who were infected from starting on journeys was ‘very likely considerable’.

By the time the committee had published its report, King had long left Madras. He served his last three years in Rangoon, before returning to England in 1908.  He passed away in 1935 at his home in Hendon.

Today, King’s memory lives on in the form of the institution that he nurtured to become the provincial laboratory for the Madras Presidency, the King Institute of Preventive Medicine and Research.

Acknowledgements: Various issues of The Lancet, Indian Medical Journal and other papers accessed online from scholar.archive.org.

(The author is a freelance researcher and writer on Old Madras and amateur theatre artiste)

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