Dr. TS Kanaka Fought All Odds To Become Asia's First Female Neurosurgeon - Homegrown

Dr. TS Kanaka Fought All Odds To Become Asia's First Female Neurosurgeon

Dr. T.S. Kanaka’s professional journey is a compelling tale of unrelenting determination to break gender barriers and traditional norms, swimming against the tide to achieve her goal. Born in Chennai in 1932, with great difficulty she entered the medical profession at a time when general surgery was completely dominated by men.“Getting a master’s degree in general surgery was not easy for me,” Dr. Kanaka recalls in an interview with The Hindu. “Women were never admitted to master’s programme in general surgery. Two other women had been admitted to the M.S. general surgery simply because they had won the Johnson Medal (the highest recognition for a student at Madras Medical College). While one went on to become an anatomy professor, the other never practised. When I applied for the MS programme, I was told I would never be accepted.”

Even as a medical student at the Madras Medical College (MMC) with an immense course load, Dr. Kanaka undertook several research projects to satiate her thirst for knowledge. Passing the M.S. degree and even life as a medical student is hard as it is. Add to that, being a woman in a highly discriminatory field made her journey even more difficult. The only woman among eight students, she wasn’t allowed to attend emergencies and her teachers were apprehensive about letting her use the scalpel--surgeries were the job of men. But her passion did not falter and with such firmness for her purpose her tenacity is incredibly admirable: “every time I took the final exam, the external examiner from Bombay failed me. It was only in the sixth attempt that I qualified.”

After several trials and tribulations, she successfully got her M.S. degree, and even then, her struggles continued, first as a medical student and then as a medical professional. Her peers in the United States would heavily scrutinise and dissect her research papers. While working at the Government General Hospital, formally known as the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, in Chennai, she volunteered to serve the Indian army during the end of the Sino-Indian war in 1963. “I went to serve the army as an emergency commissioned officer--surgical specialist, but I could not continue due to illness. I came back to the MMC to join the neuro-surgical unit. Even as a medical student, I always wanted to pursue neurosurgery and I used to assist in OP for neurosurgeon Dr. Ramamurthi,” says Dr. Kanaka in an interview with Deccan Chronicle.

It was under Dr. A. Venugopal that she formally became a surgeon, having gotten an opportunity to assist when the previous assistant surgeon had to untimely leave for training, she got the chance to prove her skills and knowledge acquired through years of hardship. Under the tutelage and guidance of Dr. Ramamurthi, she perfected her craft and emerged as the first female neurosurgeon, not just in Chennai, but all of Asia and one of the few in the world, at the time.

Along with her position at the Government General Hospital, Dr. Kanaka also taught and worked with Madras Medical College, the Epidemiological Research Centre, Adyar Cancer Institute, the Hindu Mission Hospital and a number of other hospitals. She worked with Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams for over thirty years and many such organisations which provide medical facilities and services for people who couldn’t afford proper healthcare or have access to it. She put down the scalpel in 1990 and retired to Chromepet where she currently resides. Adjoining her home Amarnath, named after her late brother, she opened the Sri Santhanakrishna Padmavathi Health, Care and Research Centre, named after her parents, where she offers several services, such as free medical checkups, yoga classes and acupuncture.

Her long and successful career has taken her travelling across the world, organising and attending seminars, presenting papers and lecturing even today. During the course of several lecture tours around India, she has implored scientists to develop deep brain stimulation kits locally, but her efforts have been to no avail. Deep brain stimulation is her favourite subject, having presented many papers on it her goal is to have these kits made locally, making them accessible, and designing them has become her pet project. 

“I am trying to design a totally implantable deep brain stimulation kit that would make treatment for cerebral palsy, among other disorders, cost-effective...This kit will help rehabilitate spastic [sic] children and people with drug addiction who want to get cured,” she explains in an interview. Even today, at the age of 84 she is far from done helping others and furthering the medical field with her contributions. Having remained unmarried, she devoted her life completely to medicine deservedly received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Federation of Neurological Societies for all her triumph and is known to have donated blood more than 139 times in her life. In fact, her name was in the Limca Book of Records for this feat. Truly an incredible woman from humble beginnings, Dr. T.S. Kanaka is someone to admire as a woman who fearlessly and fiercely pushed against patriarchy and continues to serve as inspiration and encouragement for women the world over to follow their dreams, even against all odds.

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