For 65 years, V Shanta lived in and worked out of The Cancer Institute in Adyar, Chennai, treating hundreds of thousands of patients over the years. Early Tuesday, she passed away aged 93, after suffering a heart attack the previous night. Shanta had joined the Cancer Institute in 1955, a year after the legendary doctor, activist, social reformer and legislator, Muthulakshmi Reddy, set it up.
Reddy, who had lost her sister to cancer, had set up the institute to offer specialty treatment for the condition, which was then seen as incurable and a curse of God. Shanta, a graduate of the Madras Medical College, was mentored by Reddy and her son, Krishnamurthi. Shaped by the legacy of her famous uncles, Nobel laureates C V Raman and S Chandrasekhar, she became the face of the institute and turned it into a centre of cancer care and research. Before that, the Tata Memorial Hospital in Bombay was the only hospital that provided exclusive specialty care for cancer. Under her, the Cancer Institute, grew from a 12-bed hospital into South India’s premier cancer research centre with facilities for over 500 inpatient admissions. She ensured that the institute offered free treatment to a majority of its patients, mostly poor people from rural areas. The Cancer Institute also focussed on collating statistics, epidemiology and paediatric cancer, public education towards early detection of cancer etc. and its impact was remarkable.
Shanta was more than a doctor, researcher and administrator — she saw herself as a healer. Her home was a single room in The Cancer Institute premises and she met patients until her last days. She imparted her own vision of selfless service and self-reliance that drew its spirit from the era of the freedom movement and Nehruvian India to the Cancer Institute as it expanded as a hospital and research centre. Healthcare, Shanta believed, had to be affordable and accessible to everyone.