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Mumbai's millionaire polio activist

Wednesday October 10, 2012 12:38:31 PM, Danish Khan

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In 2011, India declared itself polio-free. It had taken decades of government and civil society intervention to achieve this result in a country where an attack of polio, and the physical disability it caused, was traditionally regarded as punishment for past sins.

One of the early pioneers of polio activism in India was Fathema Ismail, who was born in 1903. Ismail was the sister of the flamboyant mill owner, Umar Sobhani, an ardent Congress party activist who was very close to M.K. Gandhi and who, in fact, supported the party financially in a major way. Given her brother’s proximity to nationalist leaders, Ismail was naturally also drawn to issues of social emancipation.

In 1936, she had served as the Secretary of the Simla branch of the All India Women’s Conference. Her Nepean Sea Road residence in Bombay (now Mumbai), where she lived after marriage, was a meeting ground for members of the party. She was known to have hidden Jayaprakash Narayan, then a young freedom fighter, under her bed to escape getting arrested by the police! She was also actively involved in women’s education and was a founder member of All India Village Industries Association.

Her life, however, took a different turn when in the 1940s her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was diagnosed with poliomyelitis. The shocked mother realised there was very little that could be done, but driven by her personal anguish, she travelled the length and breath of the country to ensure that her daughter got the best medical attention available at that time. More than her daughter’s condition, it was the attitude of the medical community and lack of proper treatment for polio patients that disturbed her.

Finally, Ismail was referred to Dr M.G. Kini, a renowned orthopaedic surgeon based in Madras (now Chennai). For around eight months, her daughter underwent treatment at Stanley Medical Hospital under the supervision of Dr Kini and all the while she herself made sure to imbibe the basic principles that underlay the rehabilitation of the polio stricken.

From Madras, she went to Pune next, since it offered her daughter more salubrious weather conditions than those that prevailed in Bombay. Here Ismail regularly visited the Army Rehabilitation Centre, which took care of injured soldiers and officers, to observe for herself the methods employed there.

After around three years of such work, she decided to put her experience to good use by assisting parents struggling to get their disabled children treated. She single-handedly networked with the medical community to achieve this and her first step was to collaborate with Bombay’s leading doctors to start a rehabilitation centre.

By May 1947, even as the country was on the threshold of independence, the Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre for Infantile Paralysis had taken shape. But it did not have premises from which to operate. The space crunch was eventually resolved after Dr A.V. Baliga, a surgeon and educationist, offered his clinic to Ismail since he himself was going to the US on a six-month tour. Thanks to Dr Baliga's generosity the Centre could start functioning and patients began to trickle in as word spread. By July 1948, the Centre had a waiting list of more than a hundred patients with around 80 children under treatment.

Once the Centre was up and running, Ismail began to work towards the creation of supportive organisations like the Society for the Education of the Crippled (SEC), the Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped, and the Children's Orthopaedic Hospital, all of which continue to be around today.

Ismail was a true visionary who understood how difficult it was for differently-abled children to get access to educational and recreational facilities and she worked hard to address this concern.

Veteran journalist, M.V. Kamath, who was then a reporter with ‘The Free Press Journal’, did a story on her, naming her India’s Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Kenny, incidentally, was a remarkable Australian nurse who had evolved rehabilitation techniques for polio patients. Such media coverage made Ismail’s work better known among those who really needed such support and with this the number of patients who sought medical assistance increased dramatically. People began to realise that children with disabilities had as much right to a future as any other child.

With the phenomenal increase in the number of patients, Ismail decided to expand the movement. Since the rich and educated could seek assistance from economically prosperous countries, she decided to focus on the less privileged. They clearly needed help and information.

In September 1947, just after the country had gained independence, Ismail - ably supported and guided by the socially conscious doctors and surgeons – established the ‘Society for the Rehabilitation of Disabled and Crippled Children’. As Ismail put it herself, it was to “organise diagnostic and treatment facilities and to educate the public on the problem as well as to collect statistics”. The government could now no longer overlook her pioneering efforts in the area, and released a grant to ensure that the good work being done could continue.

In 1951, she represented India at the Second International Polio Poliomyelitis Congress. She also visited several countries to gain first-hand experience on the different ways to support and help polio survivors. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1958 and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1978. The pioneering activist passed away on February 4, 1987.

Piecing together the shards of Fathema Ismail’s remarkable life is not easy given the sparse information available. For instance, the question arises as to what happened to her daughter whose treatment had led to the determined mother emerging as a disability activist. Again Kamath provides some clues. In the 1970s, he was introduced to a certain Miss Ismail at a party in New York. As he notes in his book, ‘Reporter at Large’, she turned out to be the daughter of Fathema Ismail and bore no visible trace of any disability. She was married and had children.

But it was not just her own daughter to whom Ismail had reached out - she had helped innumerable children stand on their own feet and enjoy lives on their own terms. Today, she continues to do this through the institutions she built and nurtured.

A London based journalist, Danish Khan teaches at MA King's College India Institute.

He blogs at:

He can be reached at





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