Russian doctor, healthcare pioneer in independent India

Professor Libov lecturing students of Lady Hardinge’s Medical College in New Delhi, 1959. Source: Libov Family Archive

Professor Libov lecturing students of Lady Hardinge’s Medical College in New Delhi, 1959. Source: Libov Family Archive

A group of doctors from the Soviet Union came to New Delhi in the 1950s to train Indian doctors and treat sick children with the latest medical practices. Among them was Dr Alexander Libov, a public health and pediatric specialist.

Dr Alexander Libov came to New Delhi in the 1950s and trained students of the Department of Children’s Diseases at Lady Hardinge Medical College (LHMC). Along with other Russian doctors, he also treated many children with polio, and published medical handbooks.

Among the earliest areas of cooperation between India and Russia after the former became independent was in the field of healthcare.  A few doctors appointed by the Soviet government of the 1950s dedicated themselves to helping sick children in India.

For some, this was an experience that not only shaped their own lives, but also the lives of their families over several generations.  Tatyana Anisimova (nee Libova) is the daughter of prominent Russian paediatrician and academician Alexander Libov, who was sent on 3-year mission to India by the Soviet government. At the age of 17, she accompanied her father and taught English at the Soviet Embassy school.

Professor Mr. V. Ossipov,  Prof.  Mrs. Sheila Singh Paul, Prof. Mrs. S. Ossipov,  Dr. Mrs. Nandita Roy,  Prof. Mr. A. Libov at Lady Hardinge’s Medical College in New Delhi,  1957. Source: Libov Family Archive

Tatyana remembers those days with great affection. In her seventies today, she is still working full-time as a newspaper editor, keeping evenings and weekends for the most important work of preserving the memory of Libov family – a remarkable dynasty of doctors devoted to their profession and to people around the world.

Alexander Libov was the eldest son of Leonid Libov, a Zemsky doctor (a physician in rural areas in 19th century Russia), who was one of the pioneers of health system reform in the USSR after the 1917 Revolution.

While Alexander practiced in the field of infectious diseases and paediatrics, his two younger brothers became renowned surgeons. The brothers practiced under their father’s supervision until they were mobilized for the Russo-Finnish war of 1939 and then the Second World War. After the war, Alexander headed the Leningrad Paediatric Research Institute.

In 1955, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first Union Health Minister and President of the Indian Red Cross, visited the Soviet Union. Impressed by healthcare facilities in the USSR, she requested the government to send a team of doctors to India to train Indian doctors in preventive and curative treatment of children’s diseases.

A team of Russian paediatricians, laboratory assistants and interpreters headed first by Prof. N. Surin and then Prof. Libov landed in New Delhi shortly thereafter. Their mission was to provide training to students of the Department of Children’s Diseases at LHMC, a women’s medical college in Central Delhi, and practice at the Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital (KSCH). Both the college and the hospital were headed by Prof. Sheila Singh Paul, the first woman paediatrician in India.

Prof. Mr. A. Libov and  Dr. Mrs. Nandita Roy at Lady Hardinge’s Medical College in New Delhi. Source: Libov Family Archive

Soviet doctors were to work in Delhi for three years (the Soviet government did not allow longer assignments abroad at that time). Along with their Indian colleagues, they used to examine up to 400 children daily.

“Kalawati Hospital was always crowded,” Anisimova recalls. “You can’t imagine those queues running into thousands, and all sick children. There were rich and poor children, but everyone was treated and served in the same way.”

Dr. K. Kanwar, ex-president (1963) of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics Delhi (IAP) which was established in 1961, joined KSCH as a young doctor and lecturer when a team of Russian doctors was operating there.

“In fact the Russian team at that time was so popular that our Indian patients would approach any person with fair complexion and beg him to treat their child,” Kanwar recalled while addressing IAP members on the occasion of IAP 50 years anniversary in 2011.

Helping Indian children

In 1957, Russian doctors set up a Physiotherapy Department at KSCH, a forerunner of the current Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PMR) department with latest equipment shipped from USSR. Within just two years, the team increased the intensity of treatment from 4,714 cases to 41,578. Russian doctors also introduced trivalent polio vaccine for the first time in India.

“At that time, polio in India was on the rise, and those children who survived had various deformities,” Anisimova said.“An artist named Virmani once came to my father. He had survived polio, his hands were almost paralyzed. He was in his forties by then...The physiotherapy helped, and his hands started moving.”

Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, The President of the Indian  Red Cross with a group of Soviet Medical Experts at Her Residence in New Delhi, 1959. Source: Libov Family Archive

“As a mark of gratitude, he painted my father’s portrait. I feel dad looks completely Indian in it,” she said.

During their three years in India, Russian doctors wrote and published hundreds of articles and several books. His work ‘Paediatric Problems’ published shortly after the team’s arrival was even noticed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

“Dear Mr. Professor Libov, I am grateful to you for sending me the booklet on child-care”, Nehru wrote to Libov. He then invited the professor to the Parliament House.

In one of his articles Prof. Libov points out that, by 1959, medical education in India was still dominated by studies of two traditional systems of medicine, Ayurveda and Unani, while antibiotic and other advanced medicines were not used extensively.

“As there are not enough doctors in India and most of those available work in cities, people in rural areas go to various practitioners and healers,”  he wrote, describing people treated by vaidyas and hakims, sadhus, fakirs and yogis.

When it came to smallpox, Russian paediatricians noticed, the beliefs of people across rural India in the cult of Sitala, the smallpox goddess. Practices of bringing infected children to the temples to worship the goddess were spurring the epidemic in the country.

Education for masses

Prof. Libov and his team not only published academic works, but a series of handbooks for mass readers, especially young mothers. Written in lucid style, the booklets on smallpox, intestinal infections, hygiene, instructions for pregnant women and others were translated into 16 Indian languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Malayalam, and published along with the ‘Soviet Land’ magazine by the Soviet Embassy in India.

“Immediately after they started distributing those handbooks, hundreds of letters started coming from all over India. One of our translators, Zoya and a secretary Ljuba were assigned to answer those letters,” Anisimova recalls.

After his Indian mission was complete, Prof. Libov returned to Leningrad where he headed the Leningrad Institute for Children’s Infectious Diseases. In 1963, he joined the medical staff at headquarters of the International League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, Switzerland, where his main work was conquering smallpox. In 1977, the Libovs received a letter from World Health Organization (WHO) with a photograph of last patient treated from smallpox in Somalia.

More than fifty years later, Tatyana Anisimova’s memories of India, its nature, its contrasts and its people are very much alive. She still remembers the fear and confusion when facing Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi at diplomatic meetings. She also recalls a young Rajeev Gandhi coming in school uniform with his brother Sanjay to greet the Soviet Ambassador’s daughter on her birthday.

However, she never went back. “I am not sure I can bear it… too many memories and strong feelings are attached to that place, you know,” she says peering at the photograph of her father examining an Indian child.

The article was first published in 2014.

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