Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty was not the conventional Indian native from the early Victorian period. Be it his confidence, his travels, his education and profession, his outlook or be it his achievements, he wasn't ordinary in anyway. He had many firsts to his name and he had achieved enough to be remembered for good but subsequent generations decided otherwise. He was a part of the first group of Indians sent to study abroad (M.D from the University of London,1849), He was the first Indian ever to qualify a Senior Competitive Examination, the Indian Medical Service in 1855 (years before S.N. Tagore cracked the I.C.S). A respected Professor, he also served with the British Army, alongside being a Justice of Peace and Honorary Magistrate of the Town of Calcutta. As a doctor he was the first Indian contributor to Western Medicine and as a traveler, he made three European Expeditions in the late 1840s with Dr Robert Edmond Grant, who had previously mentored a young Charles Darwin, to study the natural history of Europe. He was also a polyglot, a man of honor and integrity and above all, self made. Who was this Man? Was he way ahead of his time? Indeed.
Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty was born in the year 1826 in Kanaksar, Bengal Presidency, India. He had been orphaned at a very young age and suffering the usual hardships as a little orphan, he managed to enter the Hare School post his elementary education in his village and Comillah. The Young man ultimately found himself as an undergraduate student in the newly created Medical College of Bengal, a stupendous feet in its own right, considering the primitive nature of structured education in India at that time and the social stigma associated with touching a dead or diseased human, irrespective of his cast. Soorjo was born a Brahmin. He coped, earned respect and scholarships and eventually found himself on a boat to England alongside Bholanath Bose from Barrackpore , Gopal Chunder Seal and Dwarka Nath Basu. The endeavour was sponsored part by the legendary 'Prince' Dwarkanath Tagore who had sponsored Bose and Seal while Soorjocoomar was chosen by the government. The remaining candidate was sponsored by the subscriptions raised for the noble initiative.
In the years to come , he completed his M.B, then earned his M.D in 1849 from the University of London alongside becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Post returning to India, he served with the Medical College of Bengal , before returning to England with his own savings to sit for the first ever competitive exam of its kind, the Indian Medical Service in the January of 1855 , standing second in merit among twenty two successful candidates. This also earned him an appointment as a Surgeon with the Bengal Army, where he would eventually become Surgeon-Major. He was the First Indian to accomplish such a major feat. The opening of the examination was a result of the efforts of the renowned Barrister Sir Edward Ryan, PC, who vouched for the opening of higher positions for Indians. Soorjo named his eldest son Henry Scot RYAN Goodeve Chuckerbutty, probably as a sign of tribute. Interestingly, the junior Goodeve, like Sir Edward Ryan, qualified as a Barrister. The Years in England turned him into a new individual. According to the writings of their mentor, Dr HH Goodeve, during his student days in England, Soorjo had embraced European habits very well. He also embraced Christianity before returning to his native land. One may wonder whether this decision was partly fueled by a psychological insecurity? For the orthodox Indian community, he was an outcast, for having dissected a human body and for crossing the sea while this was not forbidden among the rising Brahmo faction of the society. But he wasnt chosen by a Brahmo either. The point being that he was not hand picked by the 'Brahmo' Dwarkanath Tagore. Neither was he , Tagore's second choice. The orphan's dream was fueled by an Anglican Scholarship. Around 1848, Dr HH Goodeve, in his report to his seniors asked for the extension of Soorjo's stay in England by an year because he was under-age to appear for his examination. Amidst this report and request, Dr Goodeve, does mention Soorjo's desire to get Baptised . He gets baptised under The Church of England, and completes his M.D. In 1849. While the report just mentions him embracing the faith, it is to be noted that the Scottish cemetery in Kolkata does have the grave of one Doorga Moni Basu, the wife of Dwarka Nath Basu MRCS . All the other three members of the group joined the Uncovenanted Medical Service post returning to India, while The other Bholanath Bose and Gopal Chunder Seal went on to serve in the Second Anglo Sikh War of 1848-49, after returning home post completing their education. They were both awarded medal with clasp.
An ardent traveler, he accompanied his friend Dr Robert Edmond Grant, FRS to many expeditions of Europe with the intention to study the natural history. During this he traveled through present day France, Germany, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands to name a few. He had also previously seen parts of Africa during his inter continental journey and he goes on to document his travels briefly in his 1870 book, 'Popular Lectures On Subjects of Indian Interest'. He mentions a total of three journeys while the fourth got cancelled because of the French Revolution of 1848. He stayed in Paris for two full months and was himself critical of the French emperor. During his stay in Paris, he attended the lectures of Arago, Dumas, Dumeril and others. At Prague he remembered seeing the Czech Physicians Carl von Rokitansky and Joseph Skoda. For his third expedition, this Bengali, who had by then taught himself French and German, travelled solo through parts of Europe making friends with a Bremen merchant, who in turn introduced him to some other European students in Hamburg and together they had a party of a lifetime. Even after returning back to India, he continued visiting Europe. The census of 1861 mentions him on a visit, staying with his family in Norwood.
In the years to come, he became the earliest known Indian contributor to western medicine with papers on typhus(noticed 12 cases in 1864), tetanus, a rare case of hydrophobia and dysentery. He also spoke extensively on other subjects which revealed a very different side of Soorjo- his Patriotism and his crusade to structure the National Education of India. It also highlight his outstanding analytical capabilities and his expertise in human psychology. They also reveal his vast encyclopedic knowledge and his love for literature and architecture. One of these papers dated 9th of March, 1854 emphasized the necessity of physical exercise among the Indian youth, and he vehemently encouraged them to take up European sports, including cricket, boxing, and fencing to name a few. It is mentioned, that post the presentation of the paper, a gymnasium, under a French Master had opened for a short duration in the Hindu School compound. The first attempt did not last for long but sowed the seeds of change. Many gymnasiums and sport centers eventually flourished in the city. In a way, the after effects of the paper dated 9th of March, 1854, introduced many Indians to modern European sports. He also wrote in details about the sanitation requirements of the city of Calcutta and wrote in great lengths about the importance of education including vernacular and oriental education. Interestingly, In his lecture-"A Defence of Native Education In India During The Sepoy Mutines of 1857-58", dated 1858, he states -"When God made some men dark and other men fair, he had a great purpose to serve . He did not make make climates for men , but men for climates. The habitats of the Tropics are black, because that region is intended for their habitation. The inhabitants of the colder latitudes are white because the sun is less powerful in them and does not tan the skin. Hence when fair men settle within the tropics their decendants grow more and more coloured from the action of the solar heat with every succeeding generation, nay, it is observable even in individuals of a fair people who have lived long in a hot country. In manner the proteus, which dwells in caves , when exposed to the sun, becomes colored, losing its former translucency of surface. the pride of colour, therefore, is as foolish in man as it would be in that humble creature". The lecture is dated 8th of July, 1858. While "On the Origin of Species", by Charles Darwin was published on the 24th of November, 1859. Did Soorjo speak about evolution a good sixteen months before Charles Darwin did? Possibly the influence of a common friend, Dr Robert Edmond Grant.
In a paper dated 8th July, 1858 (Popular Lectures of Indian Interest) he mentions a historic fact. By his own account the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal had admitted to the fact that around two- three graduates from the Calcutta Medical College had joined the mutineers. This fact is sensational as it is mentioned in the papers of a senior I.M.S officer and it officially asserts the fact that the war of 1857 was not just a mutiny of sepoys, and the association of graduate doctor revolutionaries with the first war of independence, clearly signifies the real acceptance of the event. It also means, their existed a breed of forgotten Indian Freedom fighters who left behind a career of prospect and comfort and fought for the revolting armies in the War of 1857. In another paper he remembers, attending a 109 year old in the 1850s, whose age, according to him-" was ascertained by a strict scrutiny of political events during the life of the individual-he being an up-country sepoy." This data was even used by the government to ascertain the average duration of human life in India, thus putting this unnamed Sepoy and the first recorded Super Centenarian , Dutchman Thomas Peters in the same bracket.
Soorjo had mastered another dimension about himself. While he was trained in Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian in his village school(which was prevalent during that time), and developed his skills in English during his schooling in Comillah and at the Hare School in Kolkata, and was further forced to take up Latin and French for his education requirements, while he taught himself German and assuming that as a medicine man, he ought to have mastered Hindustani for his day to day job, we can assume, he had basic knowledge of at least 7-8 languages, thus making him one of the earliest known Indian Polyglots.
As a person whose writings spoke of democracy almost a century before the existence of the world's largest democracy, he led the foundation of the Bengal Medical Association and also served as his secretary for a year.
In 1874, owing to health troubles, ,he took a two year leave from the army and revisited the city he loved so much, London. Surgeon-Major Soorjocoomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty, M.D, M.R.C.S., I.M.S, JP , passed away on the 29th of September of that year. He left behind a widow, Sarah who lived till 1878 and among many children, Henry Scott Ryan, the eldest son, qualified as a Barrister and practised at the Calcutta High Court. He had also co authored a book on becoming a Barrister in 1902. Another son, William Maurice studied Science at University of London and was the father of the famous pianist Oliphant Chuckerbutty, while the third son, Alfred qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1889. Alongside these three sons, another fourth son too attended the UCS. A daughter Marie Ann passed the University of Cambridge Higher Local Examination in 1884 while the other girl Martha was too educated in England. At the time of his death he was the Professor of Materia Medica and was the second Physician at the Calcutta Medical College Hospital. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
For a person who loved both India and England with great zeal, he is now forgotten by the citizens of both. But people like Soorjocoomar should be remembered, not just for their achievements but for their guts to dream, and for their capability to sow the seeds of change which go on to influence the lives of the generations to come.
Originally posted on asian-voice.com on Friday 12th August 2016