The pioneering neurosurgeon (1932-2018)

Dr Thanjavur Santhanakrishna Kanaka was born on the 31 March 1932, at Madras (now Chennai) in Tamil Nadu. While she was initially drawn towards spiritual studies, she later opted to join the medical stream and completed her MBBS in 1954. Thereafter, she secured her MS in general surgery in 1963 and went on to do her Masters in Neurosurgery in 1966. Her thesis for PhD which she obtained in 1973 was the ‘Evaluation of stereotactics in cerebral palsy’.

Dr Kanaka was mentored by one of India’s most well-known neurosurgeons Dr B Ramamurthi. She has been recognised as the first female neurosurgeon in Asia and one of the first few in the world. Dr. Kanaka was one of the first to perform chronic electronic implants in the brain and perform deep brain stimulation as early as the 1970s. Deep brain stimulation and cerebral palsy remained two of her cardinal areas of interest right through her medical career.

Dr Kanaka pioneered functional neurosurgery in the 1960s and 1970s along with two other eminent surgeons Prof. Balasubramanian and Prof. Kalyanaraman, and the trio received recognition for their research and contribution to the field of stereotactics. As a member of the team led by Dr Ramamurthi, she participated in the first stereotactic procedure carried out in the country. She also served in the Indian army as a Commissioned Officer with the rank of Captain during the Sino-Indian war from 1963-65.

For the most part of her medical career she worked in the Government General Hospital in Madras (now Chennai) and also taught at various distinguished institutions like the Madras Medical College, and was also associated with the Epidomological Centre, the Adyar Cancer Institute and the Hindu Mission Hospital. Dr Kanaka worked with several organisations for over 30 years to aid the provision of health care to the economically disadvantaged segments of society. Interestingly after 20 years in surgery she went back to school and emerged with a Diploma in Higher Education.

Dr Kanaka was also a recipient of the Colombo Plan Fellowship for one year which she utilised to study phrenic nerve stimulation and bio-medical services including those for pain management and diaphragmatic pacing. She presented several papers during her tours across the country as well as abroad, most of them relating to the concept of deep brain stimulation.(delete if space issue) She devoted plenty of time and energy to the designing of an implantable deep brain stimulation kit that would serve as a boon for cerebral palsy patients.

The reputed surgeon retired as a Professor of Neurosurgery, Institute of Neurology at the Madras Medical College in 1990 at the age of 58, and thereafter set up a consultancy service. She was not inclined to descend to private practice. Her empathy towards the poor and the downtrodden saw her pooling her own funds and reserves to set up the Santhanakrishna Padmavathi Health Care & Research Foundation in memory of her parents, and the mission was to provide free health care to the needy, especially geriatrics. During her early years, Dr Kanaka had to put up with discriminatory practices, and was often sidelined and not given her due in a highly patriarchal set up that prevailed in the early 60a and 70s, but she never gave up. She was an inspiration for several women to specialise in the field of neurosurgery. She was also a passionate blood donor and had been listed in the Limca Book of Records for donating blood an incredible 139 times in her lifetime.

Dr Kanaka was elected as the Honorary President of the Asian Women’s Neurological Association in 1996. She passed away on 14 November 2018 at the age of 86. A spinster who devoted her entire life to the pursuit of medicine and in serving the needs of patients needing neurological care, Dr Kanaka’s departure left a void in medical circles as she remained active as a consultant till the very end.

C.V. Aravind

The writer is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.