Women Section

V Shanta
Birth: March 11, 1927
Achievements: Awarded the Padma Shri in 1986 ,Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2005. Executive Chair of Chennai?s Cancer Institute (WIA)

Dr. V Shanta was born on March 11, 1927 at Mylapore, Chennai in an illustrious family of academics and scientists, most eminent among them were Nobel Laureates C.V. Raman and S. Chandrasekar. She did her schooling from National Girls High School (now P.S. Sivaswamy Higher Secondary School) and had always wanted to become a Doctor. She completed her graduation from Madras Medical College in 1949, and her M.D. in 1955.

Resisting the conventional path for women, she studied medicine at Madras Medical College and came under the spell of Muthulakshmi Reddy, a social reformer and India?s first woman medical graduate. In 1954, under Dr. Reddy?s leadership, the Women?s Indian Association Cancer Relief Fund founded the Cancer Institute (WIA) in Madras, now Chennai. Drawn to Reddy?s vision, young Dr. Shanta spurned a more lucrative post to join the Institute. She has never left.In 1955, immediately after completing her M.D., she joined the then fledgling Cancer Institute as its Resident Medical Officer. As a young medical graduate, she was attracted by the struggles and idealism of Dr. Krishnamurthi (son of the Institute's founder, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy) to make cancer care affordable and available to everyone. And since she entered its portals, she has made sure that her guiding mantra has been "Service To All."

As a quantitative measure, the Cancer Institute has swollen to a capacity of 428 beds from a cottage hospital containing merely 12 beds, when it was founded in 1954. Today, over 1,00,000 patients (both new and old) are being treated in the Institute. Innovations were introduced right from the beginning, barely two years since its inception. The first Cobalt 60 teletherapy unit in Asia was installed at the Cancer Institute in 1956. Later, Dr.Shanta came back from training on super-voltage therapy of cancer at the Ontario Cancer Foundation, Canada, and helped set up one of the finest radiation oncology departments in the country.

Recognising the importance of establishing recording details of patients with various tumours, she set herself towards the task of organising the first Hospital Tumour Registry in the country and achieved 96 per cent follow up of all cases.

In 1960, she set up the first paediatric oncology unit in India at the Institute, providing hope to young children battling with cancer. The list could go on, but it is only significant to note that in 1970, after an international study on the newly-emerging speciality of chemotherapy for cancer, she returned to the country to set up its first medical oncology division.

Even at a time when cancer was slotted into a skull-and-cross-bones frame, fuelled by ghastly images of cancer patients in the media, Dr. Shanta stood up to fight the bogey surrounding the disease. She utilised every forum to advocate the message of hope, to banish the darkness and fear that cancer patients found themselves mired in, regularly disseminating information about latest cures to sway public perception in favour of treating cancer as another disease. She has stressed on the need to create greater awareness on common cancers such as tobacco-related cancers, cancers of the cervix and breast in women and the simple ways in which they can be prevented. Shanta conducted groundbreaking research on oral, cervical, and breast cancer and paediatric leukaemia, publishing the results in international journals and establishing the Institute as India?s first Regional Cancer Research and Treatment Center in 1975. In 1984, the Institute added a postgraduate college where Shanta proceeded to train cancer specialists, more than 150 of whom now practice throughout the subcontinent.

As director from 1980, Shanta strove to make the Institute a world-class research center with institutional partners in Europe, North America, and Japan and state-of-the-art laboratory and imaging equipment. She worked tirelessly to raise donations, grants, and government subsidies and trained hundreds of village-health nurses to screen rural women for cervical abnormalities. In 2000, she opened India?s first hereditary cancer clinic.

It disturbs her that it is so hard to raise funds for the Institute when, she says, "we seem to have enough money to construct pilgrim shelters and temples in almost every street of the city." Even so, she cautions young people against cynicism. Perhaps reflecting on her own life, she tells them: "Learn to accept that you are good and that from you a lot of good can happen."

Various awards have recognised her illustrious life, the latest is the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2005. Dr. Shanta has dedicated the award to the institute, saying that there "is a long way to go". The Cancer Institute, which she has nurtured, lives up to its motto: "With humanity and in wisdom." Says Dr. Shanta: "When the sick approach the gates of the Institute, weak in body and spirit, and full of fear, there is only one response, you have to become part of them" (Frontline, July 7, 2001). This spirit is amply reflected in the dedicated team of doctors and paramedical staff, for whom each patient is a commitment for life.

Awarded the Padma Shri in 1986, Dr. Shanta has published nearly a 100 research papers in national and international journals. She is a member of the World Health Organisation's Advisory Committee on Health and has been on several national and international committees on health and medicine. But for her the real reward is the joy of those who return home cured.

Source: The Hindu(Aug 14, 2005)
Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation