“Every man’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s fingers.”
– Hans Christian Andersen
A chilly winter night, when all mortals slept, a man, dressed in a pair of baggy trousers and a white coat, entered the ward with a torch and woke up the patient on bed 10. A quick examination and he signed the discharge papers. “He has a train at 5:00 am, we have to make sure he makes it,” he said to me, in the most matter-of-fact manner, and with that he turned around and left; his operation theatre (OT) began at sharp 4:00 am. That was just one of the many instances where I witnessed Dr Mahesh Prasad Mehray place the patient’s need before anything else.
Mehray Sir completed his medical education from King George Medical College, Lucknow. I do not know what drove him to ophthalmology. He started working as a government doctor in the District Board Dispensary at Khairabad, but soon developed a keen interest in the diseases of the eye. He pursued ophthalmology training at the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital, Chennai, the erstwhile Egmore Ophthalmic Training Centre. I have travelled with him to several places to treat patients. He would walk up treacherous mountain terrains with a backpack and one or two porters to operate and restore sight. I would often get tired and ask him to turn back, but nothing seemed to deter him. On one such trip, he started telling me about his fascinating journey to Vienna, the very hub of ophthalmic education. With a dream to study ophthalmic surgery in Europe, a strong will, and support from his family and friends, he took the train from Khairabad, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, to Lahore, then the bus to Peshawar, crossed the Afghanistan border by foot and then hitchhiked his way to Turkey from where he ultimately reached Vienna by train in 1935. It took him almost a year to reach, and on his way, he worked and earned the money for his travel. While in Vienna, he observed, learned and honed his skills in ophthalmic surgery. After spending a year in Vienna, he made his way back to India via the same route. The journey was long, arduous and practically unimaginable today. But Mehray Sir, a people’s person that he was, made friends along the way. Some were more than happy to help him financially, to establish an eye hospital in India.
Once back, he started operating on patients in Khairabad in makeshift tents. As word spread about the devoted eye surgeon, thousands of people travelled hundreds of miles from India and the neighboring countries to come to him for treatment. Do you know how he built his hospital? On a fateful day, the Governor’s wife chanced upon a huge crowd on the road. Expecting it to be a village fair, she ventured to look and found patients lying in tents built for them. “That young man you see there, he is the eye doctor performing surgeries, he is bringing back our eyesight,” an old man with a toothless grin informed her, relief and hope written all over his wrinkled face. Surprised and much taken aback, but recognizing Mehray Sir’s dedication, she asked the Raja of Mahmudabad and Nawab of Aurangabad to donate land for Mehray Sir to establish his eye hospital. Thus, in 1942, the foundations of Sitapur Eye Hospital were laid.
Brick by brick, the imposing building of the Sitapur Eye Hospital, with its Art Deco architecture, came up under the watchful gaze of Mehray Sir. It was designed to model the Moorfields Eye Hospital. His sole purpose was to provide quality eye care to all, especially to the underprivileged, and to conquer preventable blindness at the grassroots level. In addition to this, teaching, training, and research formed an integral part of the Institute. The discovery and research of drugs, Diamox, Neptazine, and Chloromycin ointment took place in this eye hospital. The hospital was run by Mehray Sir and his trusted team of nine, the Navratnas! Mehray Sir selected his staff based on their skill and efficiency in cutting grass with a scythe. He said it revealed the quality of their work and their attitude, and then they were trained as OT assistants, ward or office boys, gardeners, or security staff. Sitapur Eye Hospital became Asia’s largest eye hospital, spanning over 25 acres with all subspecialities established in due course: Departments of Retina (1956) headed by Dr. J. M. Pahwa, Glaucoma (1956), Oculoplasty (1957) headed by Dr. H. L. Patni, Squint and Orthoptics (1960) supported by Dr. Keith Lyall, Cornea (1960) and the School of Orthoptics (1960) headed by Dr. Sudha Awasthi and ably supported by Ms Sushil Vohra, the Chief Orthoptist. The School of Optometry was established in 1961 to meet the requirement of spectacles in Sitapur Eye Hospital and its branches. The Nehru Institute of Ophthalmology (1965) was created to train ophthalmologists to meet the growing surgical needs. Low Vision Aids and Home for the Blind (1967) were started to make the blind self-reliant.
Not one to abide by societal rules, Mehray Sir made his own path, strategies, and lived by his own principles. He was the first to establish the tiered system of patient care with the financially able section paying for the medical service while not charging the economically challenged patients. Sitapur Eye Hospital had 200 private beds and 1000 free beds. Lack of resources was never a hindrance to his work. What was not available, he would set up manufacturing units, such as a biomedical equipment repair workshop, glass manufacturing factory, distilled water factory, brick kiln, formulary to manufacture eye drops like mercurochrome, pharmacy, a blood bank to support battle casualties, an experimental animal laboratory for drug research, and histopathology, microbiology and biochemistry laboratories., There were wards dedicated to keratomalacia and corneal ulcers, keeping with the agricultural setting of the geographical location. He had posted one of his staff at Haridwar, who would collect corneas from the deceased, transport them overnight in a moist chamber to Sitapur, where we would keep patients ready for transplant surgeries. Today, the Eye Bank at Sitapur proudly bears his name. With the headquarters in Sitapur, 32 other satellite centers, each with 3–5 clinics or vision centers, and outreach camps were established to bring eye care to the patients’ doors [Fig. 1]. The free eye camps continued to ensure uninterrupted service to the community. The system functioned like clockwork at an age and time when there were meagre means of communication.
He had several friends, and received generous donations and resources from the Government to carry out his work. His method was appreciated by Sir John Wilson, the founder of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (now Sightsavers International) who remarked, “He is the architect of structured and community eye care in India.” I remember Dr. G. Venkataswamy once coming to the Sitapur Eye Hospital with a patient for a retina surgery. He was highly influenced by all that he saw and went on to establish Aravind Eye Hospital, a role model for community eye care around the world. Mehray Sir, along with Dr. Venkataswamy and Sir John Wilson, met and convinced the Prime Minister, Smt Indira Gandhi, in 1973 to initiate an eye care program to control blindness and the National Programme for Control of Blindness was conceived (and implemented in same year). Dr. Pahwa, who headed the Retina Department in Sitapur along with Mr Tulsi Das, later moved on and built the Aligarh Eye Hospital. Mehray Sir’s strong roots nourished many a fruit, which did not fall far from his shade. He maintained a life-long relationship with Moorfields Eye Hospital, Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath and Carl Ziess, ensuring that all the latest instruments, protocols and training came to Sitapur first to keep up with the advancements in ophthalmic sciences. Sir Duke-Elder remained a close friend and an associate. Dr. Meyer-Schwickerath once remarked, “You cannot be called a retina surgeon if you have not trained at Sitapur Eye Hospital.” I had devised a machine to suture the corneas quickly and efficiently after cataract surgeries. I distinctly remember the day Dr. Carl Kupfer, after visiting Sitapur Eye Hospital, offered to take me to USA with him. Without a second thought, I graciously declined.
A simple man, Dr. Mahesh Prasad Mehray was adorned with several well-deserved awards and recognitions including the Padma Shri (1955) and Padma Bhushan (1970), the B.C Roy award, Rustom Merwaniji Alpaiwalla award and the titles of Rai Sahib and Rai Bahadur. His aura was enigmatic, and he was even invited to the Buckingham Palace [Fig. 2]. He was a man of courage who steered his own ship in uncharted waters, of unmatched kindness and empathy for all. Ophthalmology remained his muse till his last day. He passed away in 1974, suffering a cardiac arrest on his way back from a satellite center at Kashipur.
What is common between historians, archeologists, and authors? They dig up mysteries, put the pieces of the puzzle together, and narrate a story. But I am neither, I am just Jadunath Singh. I was the most efficient scythe wielder, one of Mehray Sir’s Navratnas, his OT assistant, driver, cook, travel companion, and a fading memoir of a remarkable gentleman. I owe my life’s story to him. Dr. Mehray is the unsung hero of Ophthalmology, and his story needs to be shouted out loud to the world. The man was his own army who served a nation of a billion people.
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
Col. R.S.Bhadauria, Director, Vision 2022, Mr Deepak Kanade for their personal insight and photographs.
1. Available from:https://sitapureyehospital.org/history
Last accessed on 2022 Apr 29
2. Bhadauria RS Foundation of Sitapur eye hospital. The Sitapur model Sitapur Highlights 2018 18 23
3. Bhadauria M Community eye care - The Sitapur model Indian J Ophthalmol 2020 68 303 4