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A Russian Doctor Who Was A Healthcare Pioneer In Independent India.

After India got its independence, the Russian government sent along a few of its doctors here
to help the poor sick children. This was in the 1950s. One of these doctors was pediatrician and
academician, Prof Dr Alexander Libov. It was 3 year health mission. That time, perhaps few of
those doctors knew this stint would go on to have a huge impact in the lives of generations to
come.

Prof Libov’s affiliation to medicine was natural. His father was one of erstwhile USSR’s
pioneering physicians. His two younger brothers were also surgeons. After being mobilized in
1939’s Russo-Finnish war and subsequent second World War, Prof Libov led the Leningrad
Paediatric Research Institute.

In 1957, India’s first Health Minister, (Rajkumari) Amrit Kaur along with the then President of
the Indian Red Cross visited USSR. Impressed with its excellent healthcare facilities, Ms Kaur
asked the government there to send a team of doctors to India to prevent and treat diseases in
children. This is how New Delhi saw the arrival of a team of pediatricians, laboratory assistants
and interpreters, headed by Prof N Surin followed by Prof Libov. As part of the mission, the
team trained the students of the Department of Children’s Diseases at Lady Hardinge Medical
College (LHMC) of Delhi and also practiced at the Kalawati Saran Children’s Hospital (KSCH).
India’s first lady pediatrician, Prof Sheila Singh Paul headed both LHMC and KSCH. The doctors,
both Indian and Russian, would treat hundreds of children on a daily basis. KSCH would be
crowded with throngs of sick children accompanied by worried parents. They came from
different financial backgrounds and social class but for the doctors, every child was equal to the
other.

The ex-president (1963) of Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP)- Delhi, Dr K Kanwar recollects
how the popularity of the Russian doctors made parents approach any fair-skinned person to
treat their children.

It was with the help of the Russian doctors that a Physiotherapy Department was set up in
KSCH. This gave way to the present Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PMR) department. State
of the art equipment was got from USSR. In just a couple of years, the number of cases treated
rose exponentially from 4,714 to 41,578. It was these Russians doctors who also introduced
India to the trivalent polio vaccine.

A story goes that once Prof Libov was approached by an artist who survived polio and as a
result, was left with paralyzed hands. With Prof Libov’s physiotherapy, he regained movement
in his hands. To express his gratitude, the artist painted a wonderful portrait of the doctor.
The three years in India saw the Russian team engaged in writing articles and book too. Prof
Libov’s work, ‘Pediatric Problems’ inspired Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to write to him, ‘Dear Mr.
Professor Libov, I am grateful to you for sending me the booklet on child-care’. The doctor was
even invited to the Parliament House.

Prof Libov had observed the dependence of Indians on Ayurveda and Unani. He wrote in one
article, ‘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.’ Also, certain superstitions made
diseases like small pox spread to others as the sick would often be brought to temples to be
cured.

The Russian doctors’ team contributed to mass learning. They published a series of handbooks
for the people, especially young mothers. These had information related to smallpox, intestinal
infections, hygiene, information for pregnant women etc. written in clear and easy to
understand language. These booklets were translated in 16 Indian languages and were also
published in Soviet Embassy’s magazine, ‘Soviet Land’. The booklets got tremendous response
from the readers.

At the end of the three year mission, the Russian team departed from India. Prof Libov went on
to head the Leningrad Institute for Children’s Infectious Diseases, then he joined the
International League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, Switzerland to work on eradicating small
pox. In 1977, his efforts were rewarded when a photograph came from the World Health
Organization- the photograph was that of the last patient from Somalia who was treated for
small pox.

Prof Libov and his team are perhaps forgotten by most of the medical fraternity in India today.
However, their contribution to healthcare, especially children’s health, is invaluable. Thanks to
the efforts of these Russian doctors, countless Indian children got their right to live a happy
healthy life.