Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who was it

This building itself has many stories about it, but I shall keep those for another day (with a different picture, I promise!). Today it is about one of the signs in the picture, a name that has been in business in Madras since the 1880s: Allbutt & Co., Pharmacists. Despite the name having survived for so long - I seem to remember the shop being open for business even in the early 1990s - little is known of the Allbutt, the man himself.

That doesn't stop me from speculating, however. Though I did not know it before, a search on Google tells me that Allbutt is a hallowed name in medicine; Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt who lived between 1836 and 1925, was not only a skilled physician, but also a medical historian and an inventor. He taught at the University of Cambridge, where he was made a Regius professor in 1892. He wrote his classic on medical history, 'Greek Medicine in Rome' quite late in life, in 1921, but his own place in the history of healthcare was assured when he designed the modern clinical thermometer in 1866.

It is another Allbutt who leads the Google search results for 'Allbutt Madras', however. Dr. Henry A.Allbutt was a member of the Malthusian League. In 1879, at a medical conference in Amsterdam, a lecture by three French physicians convinced him that contraception was not medically harmful. Strengthened with this conviction, he persuaded the Malthusian League to set up a group to spread this information among doctors and was also made the Secretary of that group. Apparently, one of the reasons for his strong committment to birth control was his experiences of problems in India; he was invited to be a Patron of the Hindu Malthusian League in Madras in 1882. Possibly, that gave him added information for his sixpenny booklet, published in 1886, named 'The Wife's Handbook', which included a summarised version of the then major contraceptive methods. The General Medical Council in England found this to be "infamous conduct in a professional respect" and his name was struck off the medical register.

It is highly probable - almost certain - that neither physician had any interest in Allbutt & Co., Pharmacists. But I can't help thinking that someone who was impressed by either Allbutt's work borrowed the name for a shop in Madras!

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