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British rule in India brought with it the teaching and practice of western medicine. Until then, India followed its own traditional medicine systems. When the British began educating Indians in medical science, attempts were made to teach allopathy to Tamils in their own language. As early as the 19th century, Samuel Fisk Green (1822 – 1864) taught medicine in Tamil. Not in Tamil Nadu but in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, which was then Ceylon, a British colony like India.

Samuel F Green's students traditional dress

Samuel Fisk Green allowed students to wear their traditional dress while attending class. So, his students would come wearing dhoti, turban and a shawl. (Photo Credit: sundayobserver.lk)

Fisk Green, an American missionary, taught Tamil students allopathic medicine in Manipay (aka Maanippaai), Jaffna. While students typically aspired to join government service after studying medicine, Fisk Green wanted them to become doctors and serve the poor people in their own communities.

Born in Massachusetts, Fisk Green was sent to Jaffna by missionaries. First stationed in Vaddukoddai, he moved to Manipay where he started a hospital. Today, it’s called the Green Memorial hospital.

While on a trip to New York, Samuel Fisk Green procured recent books in medicine and obtained translation rights for them. Well versed in Tamil, Fisk Green began to translate the medical tomes. He gave rather archaic sounding names to books on anatomy, chemistry, human physiology and surgery. In all, Fisk Green translated 4,650 pages of medical literature.

Initially, he taught medicine in English to students. Later Fisk Green tried to switch to teaching in Tamil, which he had become fluent in. An ad was placed in the Morning Star newspaper seeking applications from students interested in studying medicine in Tamil. Some 30 people applied, out of which 11 were selected for the programme.

While on a trip to New York, Samuel Fisk Green procured recent books in medicine and obtained translation rights for them. Well versed in Tamil, Fisk Green began to translate the medical tomes. He gave rather archaic sounding names to books on anatomy, chemistry, human physiology and surgery. In all, Fisk Green translated 4,650 pages of medical literature.

His students initially resisted the idea of studying the subject in Tamil as it would make them ineligible for government jobs and the salary that comes with it. But Fisk Green was clear about his intentions and gave them time to think over it. His aim was that they would be able to serve the poor people in Jaffna.

Green Memorial Hospital, Manipay

The Green Memorial Hospital in Manipay which was started by Samuel Fisk Green

There were no Tamil books to start with. Those learning medicine in Tamil would be given lectures in Tamil from English books. Students would take notes in Tamil. Fisk Green allowed students to wear their traditional dress while attending class. So, his students would come wearing dhoti, turban and a shawl. He taught 33 students in Tamil and made them doctors.

While on a trip to New York, he procured recent books in medicine and obtained translation rights for them. Well versed in Tamil, Fisk Green began to translate the medical tomes. He gave rather archaic sounding names to books on anatomy, chemistry, human physiology and surgery. He was able to translate only a few books himself, for which he took help from his students. Other books were only approved by him after it was translated by various people. In all, Fisk Green translated 4,650 pages of medical literature.

A biography of Fisk Green, written by R Ambikabagan, was published in 1967. In 2009, another writer Arumugam, living in Australia, wrote about Fisk Green in a book about American missionaries’ work in Jaffna in the 19th century. Green Vaidhyar is what Dr Fisk Green called himself. He wanted his epitaph to say that he served Tamils in medicine.

Looking back, it makes us wonder how the American managed to translate so many medical pages in so short a time, especially given the fact that he did not receive any support from the colonial government. His works, which were earlier kept at the Maraimalai library in Chennai, can now be found in the city’s Connemara library.

Books translated by Samuel F Green

Books translated by Samuel F Green

A biography of Fisk Green, written by R Ambikabagan, was published in 1967. In 2009, another writer Arumugam, living in Australia, wrote about Fisk Green in a book about American missionaries’ work in Jaffna in the 19th century.

The book Scientific Tamil Pioneer Samuel Fisk Green is available at https://noolaham.org/wiki/index.php/Scientific_Tamil_Pioneer_Dr._Samuel_Fisk_Green?uselang=en

Life and Letters of Samuel Fisk Green is available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.in/Life-Letters-Samuel-Fisk-Green/dp/8194991277

Samuel F Green Books

Covers of the books Scientific Tamil Pioneer Samuel Fisk Green and Life and Letters of Samuel Fisk Green.

Green Vaidhyar is what Dr Fisk Green called himself. He wanted his epitaph to say that he served Tamils in medicine.

When English is a necessity to study medicine today, it is indeed remarkable that some 150 years ago, Dr Samuel Fisk Green taught medicine in Tamil.


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