A life devoted to reasearch(1938-2015)

Suniti Solomon nee Suniti Gaitonde was an Indian physician and microbiologist who lived and worked in Chennai, and is credited with the diagnosis of the first known case of AIDS in India in Madras (now Chennai). Her pioneering work in the field of AIDS research and prevention led her to establish the Y.R.Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education, an organisation she nurtured till she passed away on 28 July 2015, in Chennai.

Born into a Maharashtrian family in Chennai, Suniti had professed an interest in medicine at an early age, and trained in pathology at the renowned Madras Medical College and also in countries like the UK, USA and Australia where she had emigrated after her marriage to the famous cardiac surgeon, the late Dr. Solomon Victor. The doctor couple returned to India as they felt that their services were needed more in their homeland. On return to Chennai she secured a PhD in Microbiology and joined the faculty of the Institute of Microbiology at the Madras Medical College and worked her way up to become a professor. She had earlier worked as Junior Physician in the renowned King’s College in London, gaining valuable experience in an elite institution. While at the Madras Medical College she had been taking a keen interest in literature revolving around the clinical description of AIDS, the discovery of HIV in 1983, and in 1986 conducted tests on a hundred female sex workers, of whom six had tested positive for HIV. She then sent the samples to the John Hopkins in Baltimore which confirmed the findings. This discovery became the first HIV documentation in India.

Thereafter, Dr Suniti dedicated her life to working on HIV/AIDS research, treatment and awareness much against the wishes of her well-wishers and even her husband who did his best to dissuade her from pursuing her quest as she had to deal with hundreds of infected men and women, many of whom were part of the gay community. Many of her contemporaries too had reservations when it came to treating HIV/AIDS patients. Undeterred she strove hard to remove the stigma attached to the disease as sufferers were generally shunned and ostracised by society. Suniti even observed that it was the stigma and discrimination against the disease that killed more people than the disease itself. She soon set up the first ever AIDS resource group at the Madras Medical College and ran various AIDS research and social awareness programmes.

In 1983 she set up the Y.R. Gaitonde Centre of AIDS Research and Education, one of the earliest centres in the country devoted exclusively to voluntary HIV counseling and testing. Among other things, the centre was also involved in assessing the significant factors that weighed in slowing down the spread of the HIV epidemic and in imparting training and education to other doctors and students about HIV and its treatment.

Dr. Suniti served as the President of the AIDS society of India and collaborated in studies on the disease at an international level, presented a number of papers at seminars and conferences, and also participated at a multi-country HIV/STD prevention trial at the US National Institute of Mental Health. She was also a part of the HIV Prevention Trials Network run by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases.

Dr. Suniti Solomon, who was conferred the National Woman Bio-Scientist award was also the recipient of a Padma Shri awarded to her by the Indian government posthumously. Her son Sunil Solomon serves as an epidemiologist at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Dr. Suniti who was active even in her seventies, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of months before her death on 28 July 2015. She has left behind a rich legacy in the form of her phenomenal research work on HIV/AIDS and her services in the field and an indomitable spirit, which will serve as a beacon light to the medical fraternity for all time to come.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.