There are people, some known and others unknown, who have committed their lives to do something larger-than-life that would benefit human society. These are men and women, from every section of the society and every field. Some of them are so much involved in what they are doing that it has become the meaning of life for them. Be it from anywhere, from the workshop of an engineer or the clinic of a doctor, they are serving the society in whatever they do. Dr. Thanjavur Santhanakrishna Kanaka, widely known to be one of the earliest lady neurosurgeons, is one such great personality. Hailed as the first neurosurgeon in India to perform chronic electrode implants in the brain, Dr. Kanaka is said to have performed deep brain stimulation in the first half of the 70s. Also, She is credited for pioneering functional neurosurgery in the decades of 60s and 70s along with Prof. Balasubramaniam, Prof. S. Kalyanaraman. Her remarkable research and contributions to the field of stereotactic surgery have earned her much recognition and respect.
Early life and Education
Born in 1932, Kanaka was one of eight children of her parents. Hailing from Tanjore, her father was a government servant subject to transfers and promotions. Kanaka was born when he was placed in Madras.
Despite having the spiritual inclination, Kanaka went on to study Science and Medicine. She completed MBBS in 1954 and MS (General Surgery) in 1963, both from the Madras Medical College. Later she did an MCh (Neurosurgery) in 1968. Along with that, Kanaka also did a doctoral research and was awarded Ph.D. in 1972. In 1983, Kanaka further pursued a Diploma in Higher Education (DHEd).
Struggles and Difficulties
When T.S. Kanaka opted for a career in neurosurgery back in the 60s, little did she know that she embarked on a rough journey. It was an era when women were not even expected in such critical fields. Women were never admitted to master’s course in general surgery. Even after securing admission, Dr. Kanaka was not allowed to watch severe cases, and her teachers were highly skeptical of her skills and hardly involved him in the major operations. Moreover, reportedly, she suffered much gender discrimination as she had been failed several times in her MS finals. However, Dr. Kanaka did not give in and finally passed the MS examination on her sixth attempt.
A passionate academician
Dr. Kanana is known for her passion for academics and studies. Even as a medical student at MMC, Kanaka undertook several research projects during the later years of her MBBS, an exceptional feat for an undergraduate student.
Kanaka also served in the Indian Army as a commissioned officer during the Sino-Indian War of 1962-63. However, due to prolonged infirmity, she could not continue her work with the Indian Army. After restoring her health, she returned to the Madras Medical College to join the neurosurgical wing. There, under the guidance of a few esteemed surgeons who polished her skills, Dr. Kanaka became the first of few female neurosurgeons of the world and the first in Asia.
Her zeal to explore and fervor for work stimulated her to carry out a broad study in the field of neurosurgery. In the 70s and 80s, she presented a handful of papers concerning the analysis and even attended international medical seminars. Sooner, several researchers in the US started scrutinizing and evaluating her academic papers. Even now, Dr. Kanaka is occupied with delivering lectures across the globe.
Dr. Kanaka was associated for most of her career with the Government General Hospital. She also taught at the Madras Medical College. Apart from that, Dr. Kanaka also went to teach at Epidemiological Research Centre, Adyar Cancer Institute, and other such institutes. Presently, she works with some organizations to aid the provision of health care to financially disadvantaged people. She has been associated with TTD (Tirumala) for more than three decades.
In 1996, Kanaka was appointed as the Honorary President of the Asian Women’s Neurosurgical Association. Then, she was formally recognized as Asia’s first lady neurosurgeon. Though she had retired as a surgeon in 1990, she continues to offer consultancy services. She has utilized her savings to establish a hospital, named after her departed parents as Sri Santhanakrishna Padmavathi Health Care and Research Foundation. The initiative provides free healthcare to the needy ones.
Apart for her glorious feats in the region of Science, Dr. Kanaka is notable for her blood donation. Once, she was listed in the Limca Book of Records for the highest number of blood donations by a person. By 2004, she was said to have donated blood around 139 times.
The queen of India’s neurosurgery is not done yet. Even at this age, her explorations in the field are unfinished. She is currently involved in a project that fabricates deep-brain-stimulation kits in India by Indian biomedical engineers, to ensure cost-effective treatment within the country.
Individuals like Dr. Kanaka are the gems of our country and the world. Her groundbreaking research in the medical science has not only paved the way for other researchers but also have inspired many women to get into a mainly male-occupied field. Along with her academic achievements, she is a most humble person. Regular blood donations and running a free healthcare service are the testaments of her philanthropy and eagerness to serve people. Dr. Kanaka is redefining the image of doctors that is much tarnished in the country now. Not only for her fellow doctor, but she should also be presented as an ideal physician and human being to the aspiring youngsters.