The Luso-Indian Stethoscope: A Review

Iris C F Gomes

Shirley Louise Gonsalves’ book The Luso-Indian Stethoscope delves into the history of having Luso-Indians, mainly Christians, play a prominent role as medical professionals in the 19th century in India. The non-fiction book is an academic read, and rightly enough, since the research undertaken for the tome was part of the author’s study as a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Dept of History, University of London.

Shirley Gonsalves provides an understanding of how terms such as race, caste, religion, etc may have held different meanings at various points of time and the effect these differences had on the willingness of people to identify themselves or not with a particular identity group. Broadly categorised, Luso-Indians were indigenous people from the Konkan region whose ancestors had been ruled by the Portuguese and converted to Catholicism. The book talks about clearer definitions for terms such as caste, race, religion, and so on being introduced by the British colonial administration to avail of categories for the Indian Census. Identifying physical characteristics with certain groups explains why the British tended to recruit Sikhs, considered a martial race, into the army. The Indian Christians, however, were amalgamated into one community although they belonged to varied ethnic, caste, denominational and community groups.

The book traces the changing attitude of the British towards those of mixed race ie Eurasian. A similar trend was seen with the Luso-Indians, who declined to be listed as Indo-Portuguese or Goanese because these terms began to have negative connotations associated with them pointing to a mixed-race identity.

Despite the fact that Luso-Indians held on to their caste status after conversion to Christianity, the taboos regarding physical contact with unclean substances such as urine and blood, and members of lower castes, did not apply as they did with high caste Hindus. This is perhaps the reason why there were more Luso-Indian medical professionals to begin with. As the Christian ‘Brahmins’ began to dominate the medical field in the 19th century, it is suggested in the book that the stigma attached to the profession may have disappeared. Education by Catholic missionaries certainly laid the groundwork to allow for the progress of Catholic communities in Bombay and Goa.

Catholic newspapers such as The Bombay Catholic Standard, The Bombay Catholic Examiner and others may have played a role in shaping the way communities saw themselves.

Since the Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de Goa, established in 1842, produced graduates who could not engage in a medical career in Portugal or Goa without further training in Portugal, the Grant Medical College proved to be the next best option. Instead of immersing themselves completely in Western medical education, the students at Grant Medical College seem to have incorporated traditional medicinal practices which appealed to the indigenous population. The role of the Freemasons is discussed as well as stipends, scholarships, etc received by students, various positions held by medical professionals and the remuneration they received for their services. It is interesting to learn that some of the early graduates of Grant Medical College were instrumental in commencing social and reform movements that were in turn eventually linked with nationalist movements.

Gonsalves recounts biographical details of ten Luso-Indian doctors. These include Luis Francisco Gomes who, apart from having earned his medical proficiency from Portugal, was also a prolific writer and journalist and was elected to the Portuguese Parliament; ophthalmologist Claudio Gama Pinto; José Camilo Lisboã, who wrote on leprosy and cataract; Cecilia D’Monte, one of the first female doctors of the time, and others. The biographies describe the national and international contributions made by these medical professionals who clearly made the best use of the opportunities that permitted them to avail of an education in Western medicine.

The Luso-Indian Stethoscope holds fast to its academic form throughout the book and is a valuable contribution to appreciating the beginnings of Western medical education in India and the unusually talented polymaths that the system proffered.

(The book is published by Goa, 1556 and available at Rs 400)