A Colonial British Surgeon’s India Diary: Circa 1891

The first part of a series carrying excerpts from Dr. Francis, a British surgeon who stayed in India at the turn of the twentieth century and recorded his observations of our society, culture, beliefs, customs, and physical conditions.
A Colonial British Surgeon’s India Diary: Circa 1891


Travel writing by foreign visitors continues to be regarded as one of the important sources for both understanding and reconstructing the history of India. With a caveat: all such accounts by foreigners should be believed with extreme caution because their frame of reference is essentially comparative—i.e., they are an outsider’s view of India. As such, they are loaded with bias and some, with extreme bias as in the case of Muslim traveller’s accounts. The same holds true in the case of European missionaries who wrote about India.

But the value of these writings chiefly falls in the realm of details in certain aspects: composition of ancient and medieval cities and towns, society, customs, manners, dress, economic functioning, and so on.

One such interesting account is by Dr. Francis, a British doctor deputed to India. He wrote a series for a London-based magazine recording his observations of life here. It can be broadly titled, Native Social Etiquette.

We give below only the most interesting excerpts from what is actually a monograph when we compile all the articles. The Dharma Dispatch makes no editorial commentary but offers it only in the spirit of stimulating further study for those interested in the topic.

This was the India of 1891-92 that Dr. Francis describes.

Medical Education for Natives

Nearly half-a-century ago, the Government of India tentatively initiated the experiment of sending four intelligent young native gentlemen of good caste to England, to study medicine—under the superintendence of one of its ablest medical officers. The experiment was eminently successful; and, the door being thus opened, other young Indian gentlemen voluntarily came to England from time to time for the same purpose. Now, they come in increasing numbers to study, not only medicine, but various callings which, it is hoped, will, on their return to India, be of use to themselves and, to their country. To all who wish to avail themselves of its aid the National Indian Association is prepared to stand in loco parentis: to provide them with suitable accommodation; to shew them the better sides of English life; and to introduce them to a knowledge of such Institutions as may especially benefit them.

Also Read
The Thriving Colonial Raj in India in Three Random Books
A Colonial British Surgeon’s India Diary: Circa 1891

Here, I would urge that all medical students from India should be encouraged to thoroughly study the laws of health. The subject is of course, taught by professors in the medical colleges and schools in India but it has never been popular with students which is a matter for regret—constituting, as hygiene does, the very essence of preventive medicine.

It is remarkable that although the natives of India—Hindus especially—attach great importance to personal ablution (which is indeed, a religious obligation); they do not seem to recognise the necessity for, healthy surroundings. The management of the lying-in chamber is a striking illustration of this. Indian mothers look upon fresh air as positively injurious the infant. To exclude it, as well as the possible entrance of malignant spirits, they take infinite pains to close every door and window, and to fill up every crevice so that there is a complete absence of ventilation. In this darkened chamber, a large fire burning in the centre, even in the hottest weather, in order to disperse any objectionable spirits that may have found entrance—the mother and child remain, inspiring the vitiated atmosphere for twenty-one days till the ceremony of the Shusti Puja has been performed.

The Typical Hindu Home in Calcutta

Imperfect ventilation is indeed a characteristic feature in all Hindu dwellings. The sitting and reception rooms, intended for the male members of the family, are comparatively spacious as is the daalan or hall, for the celebration of the Pujas and festivals that take place on the premises. There is also a court-yard for nautchs and other entertainments. But in the unttupoor (zenana or female apartments), in which the men are apt to sleep half their time away, a very limited number of cubic feet of air are, allotted to each individual. And in the immediate neighbourhood are the cooking-rooms, which have no proper outlet. T he austakoor is a place for receiving their refuse; odious privies, often left uncleaned; wells sunk almost, directly beneath these privies; the tank for the women, who here, wash their clothes and themselves.

Endemic Cholera

So conservative are the people, so indisposed to brook any chance that affects the Ma Bap ka dustoor (ancient customs) in the insanitary conditions of the houses and their immediate surroundings. Can it be surprising that cholera should be endemic? About 4,000 an average in the past, dying annually in the city, or that the natives should have so little stamina to resist it?

The extent of crowding the sick chamber of the Bengalee witnesses the rush of relatives or friends from the bedside tumbling over each other in their haste to escape, before the arrival of the European physician called in is sometimes very great.

Secret of European Strength

About thirty years ago, a lecture was given in Calcutta by a native gentleman in which he advocated the use of butchers’ meat and alcoholic drink by Bengalees, urging that because such a diet gave strength to Europeans, his countrymen should adopt it. Mistaken counsel! The increase of liver disease during the past twenty-five years, amongst the Bengalees, and others who have followed it, only proves its fallacy.

Also Read
Bengal has a Hundred Gates for Entrance and not One for Departure
A Colonial British Surgeon’s India Diary: Circa 1891

The lecturer who overlooked the fact that Britons owe their superior physique in the first instance to a northern clime, would have given better advice had he recommended his countrymen to adhere to the simple vegetarian diet suitable to a tropical climate; to indulge less in sweetmeats and ghee, and to abstain altogether from every description of alcoholic drinks, which tend to reduce the strength of Europeans.

Girl Education and the Kahani-Wala

Indian girls are remarkable for their zeal in learning whatever they are taught and there seems to be no reason why they should not excel in teaching as well. Why should not our sisters in India when sufficiently educated, follow the example of say, Florence Nightingale and show their capacity in this sphere?

There are many excellent publications, likely to do much good as text books in the higher schools. But I think that there is room for other books, suitable. for elementary village schools and for use in the zenana.

The natives of India are very fond of proverbs, and stories. The Kuhani-wala (story-teller) is always a welcome visitor in inns for travellers and wherever people congregate and, therefore such books would be popular.

Developing the Physique

There is one important point in connexion with the laws of health which should not be overlooked, viz, the physical development of the body in athletic exercise. These should always be apportioned to the capacity of the individual. Sufficient care in this respect is not taken even in England. In consequence, it occasionally happens that the life of a lad who might otherwise have grown into fairly strong man, is embittered, if not shortened. If this be so in a race remarkable for a powerful physique, how much more is it necessary that care should be taken in tropical regions, where the youthful frame is, as a rule, so much inferior?

To be continued

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch