“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Generations in Assam and in the neighboring north-eastern states, beginning from mid-60s to the very end of the last century, grew up in what may be termed as the aura of infallibility of Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta, the great ophthalmologist. People across the length and breadth of the entire region had the belief that he could cure any disease of the eyes immediately with unfailing treatment. However, the ophthalmic community has also been aware that apart from being a great, modern healer of ocular aberrations and ailments, Prof. Dutta was also the very foundation on which the whole edifice of modern ophthalmological care and research in the north-east is built.
Lakshman Chandra Dutta was born on July 4, 1924, at Dergaon, a small town in the middle portion of Assam. He was the fifth of eight children of his parents. His father was a school teacher. Prof. Dutta received his early education at Dadhora Primary School and Dergaon High School, and he often recounted his first hesitant steps at school with a mat in one hand and banana leaves in the other, the writing material of those days. When he was in class six or seven, the tragic deaths of three young family members to various diseases instilled in his young mind the aspiration to become a doctor. Lakshman Chandra Dutta passed the matriculation examination in 1944 (Calcutta University) and I.Sc. in 1946 (Cotton College). Thereafter, he went to Benaras Hindu University (BHU) to study B.Sc.
Berry White Medical School of Dibrugarh was upgraded to a medical college, the first in the entire north-east, and christened as Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH), just 3 months after India attained its Independence. Lakshman Chandra Dutta joined the second batch of students at AMCH in 1948, after completing his graduation from BHU. He obtained his MBBS in 1953.
Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta had long cherished a dream to become a surgeon, but ostensibly, because he had “good hands,” he was asked to meet Dr. A. B. Rao, the Head of the Department of Ophthalmology, in 1954. That meeting proved to be of monumental consequence not only for Prof. Dutta, but also for different communities of this region associated in different ways with ophthalmology. In short, Prof. Dutta was immensely impressed by Dr. Rao and decided to pursue his specialization in his department.
Two years later, it was Dr. Rao himself who informed Prof. Dutta of his selection for a scholarship for further studies in England. Prof. Dutta reached London in September 1956 and completed his D.O. and F.R.C.S. (from Edinburgh) in 1959 “without abortion”, to use his own expression, thus becoming the first person from Assam to obtain these degrees. In England, Prof. Dutta had the opportunity to learn from and work with stalwarts of ophthalmology such as Dr. P. D. Trevor Roper, Dr. Fincham, and Dr. H. B Stallard (author of Stallard Surgery) [Fig. 1]. After obtaining F.R.C.S., Prof. Dutta worked for a period as an assistant to Dr. Scott. Then, at the Nottingham Eye Hospital, he had the invaluable experience of assisting the famed Dr. Robinson in a number of operations. Unlike many Indian students, Prof. Dutta never considered staying on in the UK. He said that, as he had gone there on a government scholarship, it was his duty to return to his country; moreover, the thought of living away from his own people never appealed to him. He returned to India at the end of 1959.
Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta was, from his early years, a very disciplined and sincere student. But his stint in England must have helped him to hone his skills to perfection, as well as to learn and imbibe the best methodologies and practices of his trade, the results of which remained visible all throughout his professional career. Having returned to Assam, Prof. Dutta rejoined the AMCH as an Assistant Professor in Ophthalmology. Two years later, he was transferred to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), which was just beginning to take shape. On April 12, 1962, Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta set off on his glorious voyage at GMCH as the Professor and founder Head of its Department of Ophthalmology. From then on, Prof. Dutta made Guwahati his home and the base from which he expanded his horizon as a pioneer in the world of ophthalmology.
Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta’s prime mission in life was to provide quality eye care and treatment to all. His effort and contribution to this end can be seen to encompass four key areas – education and training, development of infrastructure through institutions and platforms, community service, and continued research and study.
Toward the beginning of his career, ophthalmology was not yet considered a separate discipline of medical science in academic curricula. At first, it was considered a section under general surgery, and then, it was clubbed together with ENT. Prof. Dutta was one of the few who had realized that for proper development of both these subjects, they needed to be treated individually. He interacted with governments and institutions and gave presentations throughout India, and was instrumental in introducing structured graduate and post-graduate ophthalmic education in Assam and across the country.
Starting with just one assistant and two beds at his disposal, Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta thrived to make his department the best in the college in terms of cleanliness and efficiency. Due to his efforts, the department grew rapidly and achieved recognition as one of the very best in the whole of our country. As a teacher, Prof. Dutta was extremely thorough, methodical, and meticulous. He led by example and provided personal mentoring to all his students, encouraging them to use even his personal library and journals. In 1979, a turbulent time in Assam’s history, a situation arose when the classes of the medical college were to be suspended. Prof. Dutta opposed this in an open meeting and volunteered to keep the vulnerable post-graduate students of his department in his own home until the situation returned to normal and even vouched to escort them to classes and back himself. Such was Prof. Dutta’s dedication as a teacher.
Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta’s contribution to the academic side of ophthalmology reached a new dimension when he edited and wrote, in part, the first edition of the magnum opus, “Modern Ophthalmology” in 1994. Two other much enlarged editions of the post-graduate level text followed in 2000 (two volumes) and 2005 (1827 pages, three volumes) under his editorship. His gigantic effort in obtaining contributions from over a hundred authors from all over India and abroad, coordinating with them, organizing, editing, and contributing himself, has been amply rewarded, as this much acclaimed textbook is still in use, not only in India, but also in many other countries. Published in 1995, “Ophthalmology: Principles and Practice” was another well-accepted textbook written by him with a grant received from the University Grants Commission. He was also intimately involved as an expert and examiner with not less than 15 universities all over India and with institutions and bodies like AIIMS, PGIMER, Chandigarh, Assam Public Service Commission, Union Public Service Commission, and others.
Prof. Dutta fully realized the importance of institutions and platforms in ophthalmic care for patients as well as for professionals. He was pivotal in the establishment of the first eye bank of the state. Prof. L. C. Dutta was also the founding father of the All Assam Ophthalmological Society (AAOS) (presently called the Ophthalmological Society of Assam), established in 1967, which was the first such society among medical professionals of the region. In 1975, the annual conference of the All India Ophthalmological Society was held successfully in Guwahati, despite its severe lack of infrastructure [Fig. 2]. It was the first such medical conference in the north-east, and Prof. Dutta was the organizing secretary. When the conference was held again in the city in 1998, Prof. Dutta served as the president of the organizing committee. For Prof. Dutta, restoring sight was not the only goal; he gave equal importance to rehabilitation. In 1975 itself, he, along with few like-minded persons, conceived and established the Gauhati Blind School, the first in the state. Prof. L. C. Dutta was not one to rest on his own laurels, but rather found ways to provide opportunities to help talented students in ophthalmology to pursue higher studies. To this end, he set up the All Assam Ophthalmological Trust in 1976. Along with Prof. Ranabir Mukherjee of Calcutta and Prof. Alok Pandya of Patna, Prof. Dutta took the lead in establishment of Eastern India Zonal Ophthalmic Congress (EIZOC), which proved effective in improving the participation of young ophthalmologists of this part of the country in scientific seminars and academic activities.
The plan for establishment of four Regional Institutes of Ophthalmology (RIOs) at four corners of India was announced at the beginning of 80s. Realizing the extreme necessity for such a modern and up-to-date center at Guwahati, Prof. Dutta immediately contacted the state government and all the ministers from the state, but got very little response. Only late Dinesh Goswami, then an influential minister from Assam, heeded Prof. Dutta’s call and extended his full cooperation. Their untiring efforts were rewarded when the central government approved of an RIO for Guwahati. Dr. Lakshman Chandra Dutta devoted all his energy to this project. Finally, the institute was inaugurated in 1985, just after Prof. Dutta’s retirement from government service.
In his mission to bring even the most deprived to the fold of modern eye care and to prevent blindness, Prof. Dutta had conducted not less than a hundred free eye camps in remote areas of Assam and the north-east, mostly with Lions Club and Rotary Club, where he himself operated on patients [Fig. 3]. With remarkable foresight, Prof. Dutta also used the eye camps to sensitize his students about the prevalent social reality in remote areas. He also organized Continuing Medical Education Programs on Control of Blindness among health-care providers at grassroots, and also served as a member and advisor to several national and international bodies on blindness control [Fig. 4]. One of his most remarkable and far-reaching contributions was in the field of prevention and control of xerophthalmia. As a member of the working group of National Plan for Prevention of Blindness (NPPB), he was influential in introducing the practice of giving new-borns 5 ml of retinyl palmitate in oil just after birth. He was also the first to implement the NPPB in Assam and was the advisor to the state government for the plan. Incidentally, the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology had published an article by Dr. L. C. Dutta and others titled, “Incidence of xerophthalmia in Assam,” in 1981 (Volume 29, Issue 4).
Despite accomplishing such huge organizational and social tasks, Dr. Lakshman Chandra Dutta never neglected his academic pursuits. He conscientiously followed the latest scientific developments and clinical practice in ophthalmology and never lagged behind in implementing them himself [Fig. 5]. For example, Prof. Dutta started performing trabeculectomy in 1971, just 3 years after it was introduced by Dr. J. E. Cairns. Prof. Dutta later had the opportunity to present a much acclaimed paper on the subject in an international conference in a session chaired by Dr. Cairns himself. Dr. Lakshman Chandra Dutta participated and presented scientific papers in many conferences of repute, such as 22nd International Congress of Ophthalmology (Paris, 1974), 6th Afro-Asian Congress of Ophthalmology (Madras, 1976), Annual Conference of Ophthalmology Society of UK (London, 1978), 23rd International Congress of Ophthalmology (Kyoto, Japan, 1978), 10th Asia-Pacific Academy of Ophthalmology (New Delhi, 1985), and many more. He was also awarded many prestigious fellowships, availing which he visited the USA (1971) and the UK (1974) for 3 months each, visiting prominent institutes and enriching himself with the latest advances in ophthalmology.
In addition to guiding projects for around 50 post-graduate students, Prof. Dutta also oversaw the completion of different projects funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the NPPB at GMCH, such as (i) Pathogenesis of vitamin A deficiency (1967–1971), (ii) Incidence of xerophthalmia in Assam (1976–1979), (iii) Role of parental age and birth order on congenial ocular abnormality (1978–1980), and (iv) Prevalence of cataract in Assam (1981–1982).
Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta’s greatest reward, for his unparalleled service to the society in general and to his fraternity in particular, perhaps, lay in his work itself. Be it in the form of blessings and gratitude of thousands of patients he treated, majority from the underprivileged sections of society, or the respect and adulation of his peers and students. Yet, many honors were bestowed upon him. Prof. Dutta was the first ophthalmologist from the entire eastern India to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award of All India Ophthalmological Society (AIOS) in 2002. In the same year, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award of AAOS as well. Downtown Hospital Group honored him with the first ever award for “Excellence in Medicine” in 2000. He had also received the Dr. P. N. Sinha Gold Medal given by Bihar Ophthalmological Society in 1976.
Prof. Dutta’s life was dedicated to service and work, and it is not difficult to imagine that he could not have accomplished so much without the active support from his better half. Prof. Lakshman Chandra Dutta married Saroj Dutta in 1961. She is remembered by his contemporaries as a graceful lady and a wonderful host. During the infancy of the Blind School, Saroj Dutta herself looked after its students, even cooking meals for them. They were blessed with three children. The eldest, Dr. Nitin Dutta is himself an ophthalmologist and is carrying forward the legacy of “Eye Foundation,” which was set up by his father after his retirement from GMCH. Their older daughter, Nandita, is a civil servant and the younger one, Nandini, is a well-known teacher. Unfortunately, Saroj Dutta departed this world quite young, in 1996, leaving a void in the family.
As a person, Dr. Lakshman Chandra Dutta was strict, yet kind and warm. Although his reputation transcended national boundaries, he retained his humility. He never forgot his roots and often expressed his gratefulness to his father and his elder brother. Prof. Dutta’s punctuality and meticulousness were legendary, and stories of his morning rounds and operations became part of the medical lore even during his lifetime. This great ophthalmologist and great human being breathed his last on January 11, 2008.
As a teacher and an educationist, as a builder of infrastructure through institutions and platforms, as a provider of yeoman service to the community, and as a lifelong student and researcher, Prof. Dutta’s impact was enormous. Moreover, in almost two and a half decades of his professorship, Prof. Dutta’s towering personality attracted a huge pool of talent to ophthalmology. All these aspects combined to make Professor Lakshman Chandra Dutta an institution in himself, an institution that is fundamental to the world of modern eye care in the north-east, while influencing the scenario across the country. His life and work will continue to inspire and guide many a generation of future ophthalmologists.
“People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”- Edmund Hillary
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