Search for an image of Sushruta and below is the image you will find… with a variety of captions, ‘Sushruta — Father of Surgery’, ‘Sushruta performing eye surgery’ etc;
A bearded man deeply engrossed in some surgical procedure. He is dressed in a simple white dhoti and two similarly dressed assistants are holding down the patient. Nearby, a woman in a saree seems ready to assist with a bowl in her hand and a young trainee observes these proceedings.
Looks very much like a Raja Ravi Varma painting, doesn’t it? Exquisite in all its details. From this picture, we can clearly see Sushruta in the middle of surgery but not glean much information about the time period or location. What we do know, however, is where this particular picture came from.
Turns out that this picture is not painted by Raja Ravi Varma, or any Indian at all … rather it is the work of a painter Robert A.Thom. In 1948, an American medicine company by the name of Parke Davis commissioned Thoms’ to paint 85 pictures. He researched his subjects for eight years as he completed this commission.
Parke-Davis company then compiled these pictures and turned them into what we a photo book “A History of Medicine in Pictures” and send it across to various doctors in America. Several doctors put up these paintings in their waiting rooms; then mischievously Parke-Davis company used these same pictures for their own branding.
The picture that we see today appeared as a full-page advertisement below, printed in Life Magazine, 10 August 1959 edition.
The caption read, “Plastic surgery usually regarded as a recent medical advance, was practiced thousands of years ago by a Hindu surgeon Sushruta. Living in a society that punished wrongdoers with physical disfigurement, his restorative skills were greatly in demand. His writings contributed to the spread of Hindu medicine throughout the ancient world.”
A few decades later when this picture made its way to Bharat tons of copies were made and circulated. This picture is now used to brand Ayurveda and Sushruta instead of an American drug company!
When Parke-Davis was confident that surgeries were conducted by Sushruta and Robert Thom spent 8 years studying the subject before he committed to painting it, why then are we Indians sceptical? Several sources point to the fact that Sushruta is the father of surgery, yet all we have so far is information but no direct evidence of Sushruta having existed.
Thankfully the book, Sushruta Samhita is still available to us. In the next episode, we interrogate the Samhita itself to look for some concrete information.
1: Google Books. (2019). Great Moments in Medicine. [online] Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Great_Moments_in_Medicine.html?id=LHJsAAAAMAAJ [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].
2: Google Books. (2019). LIFE. 10 Aug 1959. [online] Available at:
https://books.google.com.au/books?id=2UkEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].
Author: Mitra Desai is the Author of the Article that appeared in TejomayaBharath. This is the first in the Series of 10 articles authored by Mitra Desai ji on Bharatiya system of medicine. She is also the author of "Shitala" which will be released in February 2021.