In January 2017, India completed five years of being polio-free. A highly infectious viral disease that leads to irreversible paralysis, polio (or poliomyelitis) once used to cripple more than 50,000 children in the country every year. Thanks to decades of intervention by the Indian government and civil society, it was finally eradicated in 2011.
However, few know that the foundation for this remarkable achievement was laid by a gritty and determined woman who envisioned a polio-free India over seven decades ago. That pioneering lady was Padma Shri Fathema Ismail.
Born on February 4, 1903, Fathema was the sister of ardent Gandhi supporter and Bombay’s cotton king, Umar Sobhani. Given her brother’s proximity to the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle, she was drawn to issues of social justice and emancipation from a very young age.
Passionate about women’s education, Fathema worked as a teacher at an Industrial Training Centre for women after her marriage to Mohammad Hasham Ismail (a government trade commissioner). She served as the secretary of the Shimla branch of the All India Women’s Conference in 1936 and was a founder member of All India Village Industries Association.
Fathema was also actively involved in the nationalist movements taking place in India. Her house on Nepean Sea Road in Bombay (now Mumbai) was a meeting ground for the members of the Indian National Congress and a safe haven for underground freedom fighters. Jayprakash Narayan, Aruna Asaf Ali and other young leaders often hid at her residence (under assumed names) to avoid getting arrested by the police!
Fathema’s life, however, took a different turn in 1945 when her three-year-old daughter Usha was diagnosed with poliomyelitis. She was deeply dejected on realising that there was very little that could be done. Yet at the same time, she was determined to get her daughter the best medical attention available in the country.
Driven by this thought, Fathema travelled the length and breadth of India to ensure proper medical treatment for her daughter. She was disturbed to see the lack of facilities for polio-stricken children. This, combined with the lackadaisical attitude of the country’s medical community, convinced her to do something to change the lives of polio patients for the better.
When her husband was transferred to Iran from his posting in Mombasa, Fathema decided to stay back in India. She had heard about a renowned orthopaedic surgeon based in Madras (now Chennai), Dr MG Kini, who could treat her daughter and decided to visit him.
A grumpy old man, Dr Kini declined to accept Usha’s case at first. Nonetheless, his resistance was worn down by the tenacious Fathema who literally sat outside his house every day (accosting him as he travelled between his house and clinic) till he agreed. For the next eight months, she stayed in Madras as her daughter underwent treatment under the supervision of Dr Kini.
Fathema’s next stop after Madras was Pune (where she had learnt there were physiotherapy facilities that could help her daughter’s treatment). These facilities were used by the British physiotherapists and their Indian assistants to treat and rehabilitate injured soldiers. The determined mother requested and petitioned the reluctant authorities till they agreed to give Usha access to the physiotherapy treatment.
Fathema herself spent time observing and learning the methods employed at the rehabilitation centre. What helped her in this effort was the three years (1920-23) she had spent studying medicine in Vienna (due to a financial crisis, she had to return before she could her complete her course).
After approximately three years of treatment and physiotherapy, Fathema’s daughter regained remarkable mobility in her once completely paralysed right leg. Delighted by the improvement, she decided to use her experience and learning by helping other parents with polio-stricken children.
In 1947, as India began taking her final steps towards independence, Fathema began talking to the leading members of Bombay’s medical community about starting a rehabilitation clinic for polio-stricken kids. However, low awareness about polio along with a financial crunch made it tough for her to find a suitable space and equipment for the clinic, tentatively named Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre for Infantile Paralysis (it was later called Society for Rehabilitation of Crippled Children).
This major hurdle was crossed with help from Dr AV Baliga, a surgeon who generously offered his clinic in Chowpatty to Fathema as he was going to the USA on a six-month study tour. The equipment and kits were sourced from the Army Hospital in Pune that was winding up due to the imminent departure of the British from India. Fathema also convinced the hospital’s Indian physiotherapy assistants to take up jobs at her rehabilitation clinic.
The polio clinic finally opened in May 1947. As the word began to spread about its work, patients began to trickle in. A year later, Fathema’s immensely popular clinic was treating 80 children and had a waiting list of more than a hundred patients!
As a newly independent India woke up to the needs of polio-stricken and disabled children, the clinic began garnering attention from medical journals, NGOs and activists across the country. Soon, the government of Bombay allotted space in the empty barrack at Marine Drive to Fathema for her clinic.
In 1951, Fathema toured hospitals and attended conferences (including the Second International Polio Poliomyelitis Congress) in USA and Europe for four months. Armed with a vision for a fully-fledged hospital dedicated to polio patients, she returned to India and immediately petitioned Prime Minister Nehru for a plot near the race course at Haji Ali.
When Nehru asked her why she wanted that particular plot, Fathema answered that the racecourse was frequented by affluent people and she wanted them to be aware of the struggles faced by polio-stricken children.
The Prime Minister acquiesced, and himself inaugurated the first-of-its-kind 50-bed hospital in 1953 (it continues to operate to this day). The incredibly dedicated women also convinced several prominent industrialists to offer training to disabled people at her clinics to help them get employment.
In 1959, Fathema started a special class for a few polio-stricken students (including her daughter) which grew into a school for disabled children from underprivileged backgrounds.
Equipment and free lunches were sponsored by corporate companies while a Fellowship for the Physically Handicapped was set up to provide special education and training to the most promising students.
Today, over 300 students receive academic and vocational training in Fathema’s schools (three day schools in Mumbai and one residential school in Lonavala).
Awarded the Padma Shri in 1958 for her exemplary work, Fathema Ismail passed away on February 4, 1987. The pioneering activist didn’t just transform her daughter’s life; she helped innumerable polio-stricken children stand on their own feet and live life on their own terms. Her years of work also laid the foundation that was crucial for India’s achievement of polio eradication.