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Biographical entry Mehta, Shantilal Jamnadas (1905 - 1997)

MB BS; MRCS LRCP 1930; FRCS 1930.

10 January 1905
Surendranagar Saurashtra, India
21 June 1997
General surgeon


Shantilal Mehta was a distinguished surgeon and superintendent of the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Hospital in Mumbai, India. He was born on 10 January 1905 in Surendranagar, Saurashtra. As educational opportunities were limited in his local area, Mehta went to live with his maternal grandfather, Motilal Kothari, first in Rajkot and then in Mumbai. When he was 13 he suffered a severe bout of dysentery. The local physicians were not able to cure him, so his mother took him to the local ayurvedic doctor, who saved his life. The experience gave Mehta a lasting respect for ayurvedic medicine.

Mehta studied medicine at Grant Medical College and the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Hospital. Even as an undergraduate, he had a reputation for being extremely well read and conversant with the latest information published in medical journals. This led to disagreements with those of his teachers who disdained medical journals and taught by rote from textbooks.

In 1928 he went to the UK for his postgraduate studies, with financial help from Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas. Mehta gained his fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1930 and was the first Indian to be awarded the Hallett prize medal.

He learnt much during his stay in London. He recalled a clinical meeting at St Bartholomew's Hospital, where a patient with a swelling in the upper tibia was discussed. The senior consultant surgeon obtained the history and then examined the patient. An assistant proffered the patient's X-rays, but these were waved away. The surgeon demonstrated the fluid thrill on percussion that gave away the diagnosis of a hydatid cyst. Surgery confirmed this diagnosis. Such experiences heightened Mehta's admiration for the great clinical surgeons of the time in England.

His friendship with the eminent physiologist Samson Wright started off on an uncertain note. During a lecture by Wright, Mehta was seen to shake his head in disagreement. Wright stopped his talk and turned to him, seeking the reason for this gesture. Mehta explained that Wright had erred in the statement he had just made. 'If what you have just said is right, what you have written in your book is wrong.' The book was sent for, opened, the relevant passage read out and Wright had to apologise. 'The book is right and so is Shanti. It is I who am wrong.' Such grace, Mehta was later fond of saying, was rare, especially in individuals who had reached such heights.

He had intended to continue his studies in the UK after obtaining his FRCS, but was forced to change his plans once he learnt his mother was ill. He returned to India and rejoined his alma mater as a teacher in the department of surgery.

He was loved by his students despite being a stern disciplinarian. His lectures were always well attended. His talks often veered from the subject to include anecdotes and references to works other than what he termed 'story books' (text books). His prodigious memory made effortless recall of facts from such tomes as Gray's anatomy. He also referred his students to works that had inspired him, including Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor's The dramatic in surgery (Bristol, J Wright & Sons, 1930), John Hilton's On the influence of mechanical and physiological rest in the treatment of accidents and surgical diseases, and the diagnostic value of pain (London, 1863) (later abbreviated to Rest and pain) and Rutherford Morison's An introduction to surgery (Bristol, John Wright & Sons, 1910). He made surgery come alive to his impressionable audience.

His own surgical skills were exceptional and, when Indira, the daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and herself a future prime minister, needed surgery for a kidney stones, Nehru insisted Mehta should operate on her, even though it meant flying Mehta and his entire team from Mumbai to New Delhi.

As superintendent of the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy's Hospital, Mehta set many trails ablaze. His lasting contribution was the planning and construction of the multi-storied building on the site of the old hospital. But at the age of 75, he reminisced: 'The greatest satisfaction I have derived in my career has been my association and involvement with students at the Grant Medical College and J J Hospital.'

After his official retirement, he set up another hospital - this time in the private sector - the Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre. The founders of this hospital - Lokumull Chanrai and his wife Jasotibai - wanted to create a hospital where the poor would be treated for free and would receive the same treatment and respect as the rich. It is to Mehta's credit that as long as he remained medical director of the hospital, this policy was strictly adhered to. His introduction of medical audit, insistence on autopsies and the setting up of an efficient medical records department were unique for Indian private hospitals.

He also played a part in the establishment of the Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital and, along with Major General S L Bhatia and Jivraj Mehta, in the formation of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

Once he had finally retired, he continued to devote time to his other love - the Rotary Club - and to other organisations for public welfare.

In an interview at the age of 91, he provided some glimpses into his personal life whilst active as a surgeon. 'I would awaken at four. An hour was spent in prayer. I then shaved. At five minutes to six I was at the golf course… At 7 am I was home and at quarter to eight I was in the hospital. At five minutes to eight my patient was ready for surgery and I would start. I was very rigid about my timings and would be very upset if there was any delay…I worked 14-16 hours a day.' When asked whether he regretted not having spent time with his children, he nodded, 'Yes', his eyes brimming over. And he admitted: 'My greatest joy was not surgery. It was teaching.'

In the same interview he was scathing about the current state of medical care in Mumbai. 'Pathetic. Worst of all is the state of the medical profession. We have lost all sense of values. No one appears to be satisfied. Once a person starts earning five lakhs, he wishes for ten lakhs.' He was just as uncompromising about the state of medical education in India. 'I am convinced that the present deterioration is mainly due to the teachers themselves…' He summed up his own philosophy by using a quotation from the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: 'You only have the right to work but never to its fruit. Let not the fruits of action be your motive.'

A thorough gentleman, he was not above bullying when he felt this would elicit an improved performance from his students and junior associates. Those close to him knew that much of his bluster was merely born of frustration at others not rising to his standards and an attempt at provoking them into feeling.

His final years were saddened by the ill heath of his wife, Champaben. A stroke left him unable to write, and towards the end of his life he was wheelchair-bound, found reading difficult, was hard of hearing and, worst of all, was losing his memory. Even so, he remained a man of old-worldly charm right up to the end. He died on 21 June 1997. He was 92.

Sunil Pandya

Sources used to compile this entry: [Milestones. The life and times of Shantilal J Mehta (Mumbai, published by Jayashri and Nandita Mital, 1996); The National Medical Journal of India Vol.10 No.4 1997, pp.200-201 - accessed 5 November 2015].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England