Dr Wishnu Kirloskar and friends
Dr Kirloskar, center, in bow tie and tuxedo, with friends (Photo courtesy of Shaker Nagarajan)

Remembering Dr Kirloskar

For Kodaiites living in Kodai in the ’60s and ’70s, the little black Fiat with the Bombay license plates was a familiar sight as it zipped up Club Road on its way to the golf course. The poker-faced driver would lift both hands from the wheel and give us kids a namaste without missing a beat. He was our family physician, the wonderful Dr Wishnu Kirloskar.*
Dr Wishnu Kirloskar

At the time, we had no clue who he really was or how he had ended up in Kodai. Rumour had it that the good doctor had fallen out with his powerful Bombay family after marrying a German girl, and chose to settle on Bliss Villa hill, where he would watch the mist battle Mount Perumal. (His bungalow, The Glen, has since been demolished to construct Hotel Pleasant Stay.)

It was only later that we learned that his father (Ramchandrarao Kirloskar) and uncle (Laxmanrao Kirloskar) had founded Kirloskar Brothers in 1888, which grew into an international conglomerate now worth billions of dollars. (Click here for an interesting and readable biography of the Kirloskar family.)

Dr Kirloskar with his wife, Ilse (Photo courtesy of Leela Kumar)
Wishnu was sent to Germany to study medicine. There, he met and married Ilse. His cousin, S L Kirloskar (the powerhouse behind the Kirloskar company), had stayed with the young Dr Wishnu on his way home to India from MIT in 1926. He described Ilse as beautiful and talented. Wishnu’s doctor friends from Kodai, Renate and Shashi Desai, told me that the young man had paid for his studies in Germany by coaching tennis, and that he had also introduced cricket to Berlin. Wishnu and Ilse returned to India in 1936, first practicing in Hyderabad and then Pune. With the onset of World War II in 1939, Ilse was declared an ‘enemy alien’, rounded up with all the other Germans and Italians, and locked up for six years in the Satara internment camp. Apparently, Dr Kirloskar was only allowed to enter these old converted military barracks to deliver their daughter Leela.

At the old Golf Club in 1989 on the day Dr B Ramamurthi was inducted as a the Captain of the Club (picture by courtesy Dr Ravi Ramamurthi). Left to right: sitting, Mr WPAR Nagarajan, Dr W Kirloskar, Mr VD Swamy, Mr M  Meyyappan and Dr B Ramamurthi. Left to right standing: Mr R Sukumar, Mr Moideen Kutty, Dr R Kumar, Mr V Jagannathan, Mr RC Kesavamurthi, and Mr Ashok Nagarajan
(Photo courtesy of Dr Ravi Ramamurthi)

To us children, Dr Kirloskar was the clean-shaven, coat-wearing, club-going, tennis-playing doctor who gave the world’s most painless injections. Besides his private practice, he also worked at Van Allen Hospital and was the physician for Kodaikanal International School (KIS). He would see us in the ‘Dish’, as the KIS dispensary was called, then housed just below the KMU, across the road from Lochend.

Dressed in her white uniform and cap, the Austrian nurse, Miss Putz, ran the Dish like an army sergeant. Girls on the right in their mysterious and forbidden hall, and boys on the left. Like the sheep and goats waiting for Judgment Day.

Miss Putz would douse the hair of unfortunate girls with kerosene to kill off lice. She would line us up for throat painting with red mercurochrome antiseptic, or smear our injuries with that same luminous substance. We loved the sympathy of our friends when they saw our magnificent bright red wounds, the bigger the better.

And then there was the disinfectant alcohol she swabbed before our regular typhoid and cholera injections. I distinctly remember the smell of that malevolent spirit, an odour that still makes my mouth go dry, for it was the scent that came before the big jab.

‘Ze doctor vill see you now,’ Miss Putz would say. We would be brought into the treatment room, our sweaters removed, shirtsleeves rolled up, skin swabbed with the dreaded spirit, and ping! The injection was in and out before we had time to notice the pain. Yay for Dr Kirloskar! (Injections were a walk in the park for most of us, except for the muscle-bound Principal’s son Gary Root, who tensed his shoulder muscles and bent the needle.)

When I was in Grade 2, I decided that it was high time I learned to fly. For my debut flight, I chose the swing set in front of Kennedy dorm, with chunky chains and heavy wooden seats. I swung higher and higher, and at the apex, jumped off, flapping wildly. It was glorious. I was actually flying! Seconds later, I crashed to the ground and felt an excruciating pain in my right wrist. When my mom brought me to see Dr Kirloskar, he sent us down the road past the Milk Union to the Government Hospital to take an X-ray. (That X-ray room is now the hospital’s mortuary.)

‘The bone is broken like a green stick,’ Dr Kirloskar said, glancing at the X-ray. I imagined the green sticks of the Artemisia pith plants that grew along the side of the road. ‘It’s not broken all the way through, just on one side. We’ll have to put a plaster on.’

Dr Kirloskar was an artist with plaster. In those days, the technique was to create a thick soup with Plaster of Paris powder and water, dip in regular gauze rolls, and apply. We would then have to sit in whatever sun we could find for the plaster to dry. Dr Kirloskar was brilliant at crafting beautiful, lightweight casts.

Somehow my plaster kept getting wet and muddy. After the fourth change, Miss Putz said that if I needed one more plaster, the cost was coming out of my own pocket. I did my calculations. This would mean no pink and yellow tickets to buy taffy or homemade square marshmallows from the Kandy Kitchen. And no wintergreen chocolate truffles from Mr Dawson or goose eggs from Hamidia’s in the bazaar. After that, I kept my plaster dry and clean.

Dr Kirloskar took care of many of us during those years of service, day or night. On one occasion, I had such a horrible cough that nobody in the house could sleep. My dad finally brought me up to the hospital, where Dr Kirloskar checked me out and prescribed a big tablespoon of warm milk with honey. That was the end of the cough.

Among his various feats, Dr Kirloskar was famous for delivering babies. The most memorable was when a village lady in the throes of labour was walking to the hospital and had to lie down along the side of the road just above Bryant Park. Dr Kirloskar rushed to the scene and realised that this baby was not going to wait, so he delivered her right there on the grass. The mother and baby were then taken up to the hospital and put under the charge of the commanding matron, Mrs Norris.

After my return to Kodai in 1990 as the KIS school doctor and consultant at Van Allen Hospital, it was an honour to see Dr Kirloskar from time to time as a patient. Though this eighty-year-old’s days of speedy driving and delivering and golfing were over, he was still the gentleman doctor of a bygone age.

The author in his clinic
The author in his clinic

About this time, I set the wrist fracture of one of his friends and applied a plaster which, I’m embarrassed to admit, was more like lumpy oatmeal than Dr Kirloskar’s masterpieces. The good doctor smiled sweetly and thanked me for my excellent care.

Our community was saddened when Dr Kirloskar died in the late 1990s. I visited Rosebank on the Convent Road, where he had lived, and reminisced with his gracious daughter Leela. Though he could have been a rich industrialist or leading physician in Bombay, Dr Kirloskar had chosen a life in a hill station with his wife and daughter. He prioritized his friends and lived out his own dreams. He took care of us all: rich, poor, and everybody in the middle.

Dr Kirloskar on his last birthday in 1993 (Photo courtesy of Leela Kumar)
Dr Kirloskar with his daughter Leela (Photo courtesy of Leela Kumar)

Dr Kirloskar remains one of my role models, one of the reasons I chose to become a small-town doctor. And those of us who remember, remain his enduring fans.

Dr Kirloskar changed the spelling of his first name from Vishnu to Wishnu when he went to Germany and realised that V was pronounced F, and W was pronounced V. He retained the new spelling during his lifetime.

Bruce DeJong

Dr Bruce DeJong is a family physician who was born in Kodaikanal and left for America in 1977. He returned in 1990 as the KIS school doctor and consultant at Van Allen Hospital, and lived here for a decade with his family. He lives in Bodinayakanur, Theni district.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Previous Story

Interview: ‘Patients Here Recover Better Than in the Plains’

Next Story

கோவிட் 19 தொற்று இருக்கிறது என்று எப்படித்தெரியும் – அடுத்து என்ன செய்வது ?