Archiving the  Cancer Institute

The Cancer Institute (Women’s Indian Association) at Adyar, Chennai is a pioneering institution among the first in India. It is a rare instance of a medical institution combining advanced technology with a focus on subsidized care for the poor.   Established in 1952 by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, the distinguished social reformer and legislator, it is being steered presently by Dr. V.Shanta. Dr. Muthulakshmi campaigned on many issues concerned with women’s rights and well-being. Under the aegis of the Women’s Indian Association, she campaigned for a centre exclusively to treat cancer.  Embedded in the ethos of the independence movement, and reflecting elements of Gandhian philosophy and Nehruvian framework of science for development, the Institute  has expanded the notion of cancer treatment into a holistic notion of care drawing upon a gendered approach to health, well-being and care giving.


Dr. Muthulakshmi  had lost her sister to undiagnosed and untreated cancer and this bereavement was the primary motive for her herculean efforts. She roped in her son Dr. S.  Krishnamurthi to help her. Initially reluctant, his devotion to his mother brought him around and he soon became the chief force in building up the Institute. His colleague Dr. V. Shanta drew upon her own memories of sacrifice and selfless caregiving by her mother for the large joint family. She  transformed the prevalent notion of cancer treatment by putting the patient in the centre, and developing a care ethos even while acquiring advanced technology and building treatment protocols. The inner world of  passion, devotion, loyalty and care giving , as feminists argue, has the power to shape the ethos and energy of macro institutions.


The Adyar Cancer Research Collection emerged out of AWA’s vision to document women’s contribution to health and medicine The project created an archive of the Institute’s documents (15 files with 160 documents,209 newspaper cuttings, 49 Annual Reports, and  779 photographs) and generated fresh material through recording oral narratives of key persons (14 interview sessions. Collection is located  in the Research Centre for Women’s Studies (www.


The presentation I made at Madras Institute of Development Studies in December 2011 gives an idea of the letters, documents and photographs that have been archived.

Images © Cancer Institute, Adyar

2017  ‘Healing Touch: Dr. V. Shanta’s Journeys In Cancer Treatment And Care‘  in Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha (ed) vol. 2 Stree: Kolkata, 93-120.