Long before "Dr Sarang Chitale" made headlines for masquerading as a doctor for a decade in NSW, Indians were practicing medicine as ‘doctors’ without any medical qualifications in Australia.
Recently, in New South Wales an Indian man was caught allegedly masquerading as a ‘doctor’ for more than a decade.
Mr Shyam Acharya was tracked down hiding in India and accused by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) of stealing the identity and medical qualifications of Dr Sarang Chitale while in India before moving to Australia and becoming a citizen.
Now, the NSW Health Minister, Mr Brad Hazzard, has called for a nation-wide inquiry.
Fake doctors in Australia are not a new phenomenon.
Gillian Hull in “From Convicts to Founding Fathers” (2001), notes that between 1788 and 1868 that is the arrival of the First Fleet and the last convict ship, over a hundred 'medical men' arrived as transportees from Britain and other European countries.
Although, a vast majority of Australian doctors were emigrants from the UK. It was only post-1860s - after the gold rush period, that a few doctors or quacks (medicine men) emigrated from America, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and India to try their providence in the lucky country.
P. Phillips’ Kill or Cure? (1978/1984) and Philippa Martyr’s Paradise of Quacks (2002) also provide an intriguing history of many fake doctors working in Australia and presenting a challenge for the successful implementation of the Medical Practitioners Act.
Some of these fake doctors have also been immortalised in short stories, such as Sketcher’s “Professor Quackenboss” (1882), Janor’s “Quacks that Infest the Bush” (1908) and “Mrs Gallop and the Quack Doctor” (1915).
All these studies and stories focus on White healers or quacks and refers to healing practices of German, French, Greek, and some Chinese migrant doctors and surgeons in Australia. They leave out an important group, 'Indian doctors' or hakims (practitioners of fringe medicine) from their purview.
Long before Mr Acharya aka Dr Chitale made into the headlines of newspapers, Indian’s were practicing 'medicine' without any Western medical qualifications in Australia.
Fake 'Indian doctors', as they were mostly called in Australian newspaper narratives, have a history that is directly connected to Australia-India colonial connections.
In fact, during an outbreak of plague in Fremantle, West Australia, Mr George C. Anderson, a sanitary specialist and manufacturer, used his Indian remedy 'Janaki.’
Mr Anderson has worked in 1887 with an Indian specialist Baboo Ram Chunder Dutt, M.D. in a plague stricken village near Bombay. Dr Dutt sold his formula to Anderson who successfully introduced it in West Australia. But the Colonial Secretary's office, on recommendation of the president of the Central Board of Health, rejected his offer to use the specific in plague cases in WA. Mr Anderson told the board that ‘Janaki’ is not an Indian remedy but has its origins in France, and has been modified by the Indian doctor to additionally cure typhoid, malaria and enteric fever.
I assume that most of the early so-called ‘Indian doctors’ in colonial Australia were trained in traditional medicine or herbs and therefore self-employed as local general practitioners (that means no government or hospital appointment like Mr Acharya).
From that time period’s Australian newspaper reports, we can see that their professional life was hard, as advertisement about their work or stories of their misdeeds/misconducts appear occasionally.
Their stories are full of unethical practices by Western standards of university educated and trained doctors.
Research also shows that there was a golden triangle of practice in the colonies during that period. United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa served as important territories for these 'Indian doctors.'
Most of these 'Indian doctors' practiced as eye and piles ‘doctors’ in both regional and urban areas of Australia.
Relying heavily on word-of-mouth and local newspaper advertisements that is patients’ testimonials some of these Indian doctors gained great respect outside the Australian professional medical sector.
For example, an advertisement by Mahomed Baksh in local newspaper contained the declaration of his visit and a number of testimonials from various parts of Britain and Australia.
Surprisingly, these 'Indian doctors,' just like the Indian hawkers and camel drivers, mainly originated from Punjab and Bengal.
Unlike the hawkers who were motivated by a desire to settle down in Australia and make a life for themselves and their families these entrepreneur ‘Indian doctors’ were driven strongly by a yearning to make big money in a short period of time and return to India or move around other parts of the world to become an international success.
Furthermore, unlike the early Chinese herbalists and practitioners of traditional medicine these 'Indian doctors’ were not hidden in back rooms of old shops.
'Indian doctors’ practiced openly from respectable hotels or streets.
With growing reputation as ‘Indian doctor,’ who is able to successfully treat eye and piles diseases, some of them even bought houses and farms in small towns and regional areas to legitimise their practice in Australia.
An example of such flamboyance is Delph Singh who in the early 1900s owned a farm at Mullumbimby Creek, two-thirds of the land in this town, acquired a cattle property 15 miles out of Murbah and another farm along the Richmond River.
Delph Singh recorded his profession officially as a traditional ‘Indian Doctor’ and ran a practice in Sydney amongst other business interests. His not only advertised himself as a 'doctor,' but even had his name on a vehicle and a brass plate outside his home. Despite being fined multiple times by the police under the Medical Practitioners Act for false advertising and not being a legally qualified medical practitioner, Delph Singh continued his practice.
Other notable Indian eyes and piles doctors or specialist practicing in Australia between 1880s-1920s were:
- M. F. Leeker - five years of training in India under his father and practiced for twelve years in Adelaide;
- Mahomedeen Baksh - able to produce a number of testimonials' from grateful patients in South Australia;
- Rahim Buksh - treated a patient for both bad eyes and heart disease;
- Mahomed Fuadledeen - treated sore eyes, near and weak sight, piles, toothache, rheumatism, sciatica, poor blood, neuralgia, lumbago, and all other complaints;
- Ali Haidar - styled himself a professor of medicine;
- Charagg Dein - known for opening office in good hotels and give first three consultations free;
- Patanell Toinonys - hanged himself on a tree in the North Rockhampton Pasturage Reserve due to monetary straits and court cases;
- Kismet - an Indian doctor of philosophy who held séances for public and expected to live till the age of at least 150;
- Johor Deen - used the title Doctor but advertised himself only as "Hakim";
- Mulla Bux - known for reversing the local doctors treatment;
- Goolab Shah - couldn’t speak English was arrested for performing a surgical operation without being a physician, surgeon, or licensed apothecary;
- Assaf and Ranja - practised together as professors of medicine and arrested for manslaughter; and
- Sureswar Sarkar - accused of molestation offences against girls.
It was often argued by prosecution in court that these 'Indian doctors' may really believe in their own powers but from the public point of view it was a question of fraud because these so-called 'doctors' went around the country treating people by means that were barbarous and obsolete.
The workings of 'Indian doctors' in the golden triangle showcases an easy mobility around colonies which is evinced by the advertisements showcasing their experience and success in India, Britain, Australia, and other colonies. This doesn’t mean an acceptance of their services or the oriental knowledge in Western medicine space.
As was the case with oculists in Britain (the Old Bailey trials), after several court cases and fines, mostly for fraud the presence of 'Indian doctors' was taken for granted in Australia.
But with passing of time, most of these wandering 'Indian doctors' disappeared from the scene only to reappear in other countries as spiritual healers.
Post-1947, selected Western trained doctors from India came to Australia on study trips, under World Health Organisation Fellowships, to learn major breakthroughs in cancer research, heart diseases, pathology, public health, ENT, plastic surgery, and hospital administration.
During the 1970s, many doctors from India started migrating to Australia.This was the time when Australian Medical Council (AMC) started the formal process of assessment for registration by examination.
The social media discussion that followed after the case of fake 'Indian doctor' in Australia once again showcases the attitudes towards Indian doctors – trained or untrained in Western medicine system.
Overseas trained doctors claim that blaming and questioning reflects the deep and hidden fear of the "other", allegedly an attitude inherited from the White Australia policy.
Dr Amit Sarwal is an Endeavour Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Deakin University. His project is a systematic exploration of the life and times of on 'Indian doctors' (oculists, hakims and healers) in Australia, during the time period between 1880 and 1930.