Maybe some of you have heard of Dr Acacio Gabriel Viegas (April 1, 1856-February 21, 1933). I hadn’t until about a decade ago. Until then, I would pass by his statue near Mumbai’s Metro cinema without realising that it was his discovery of the outbreak of bubonic plague in Bombay that saved thousands of souls.

Viegas returned to my attention recently while I was reading Room 000: Narrative of the Bombay Plague by Kalpish Ratna. Kalpish Ratna is the nom de plume of Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, both surgeons, who writer together to explore the interface between science and the humanities. Room 000 is a fascinating read, especially for someone with a medical background, but I would recommend it to everyone. Had a book like this been around when I was a medical student, I would have had better perspective and a sense of awe while visiting Grant Medical College (where Room 000, the site of a groundbreaking discovery on the plague, was located) and so many other city landmarks.

Room 000 brings to life Alexander Yersin (1863-1943, who lives on through the name of the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis), Robert Koch (1843-1910, one of the founders of modern bacteriology), Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine (1860-1930, who developed vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague), Paul-Louis Simond (1858-1947, who demonstrated that the intermediates in the transmission of bubonic plague from rats to humans were the fleas Xenopsylla cheopis that dwell on infected rats) and so many other pioneers who were in India around the time of the Bombay Plague in the late 1890s spilling into the 20th century. It was thrilling to travel back in time into their world, and to get a refresher course on the basic principles of bacteriology, from Koch’s postulates to the intricacies of Gram staining.

The five members of the Bombay Plague Committee. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license].

Dr Acacio Viegas features very prominently in the book (I counted at least 168 mentions), and deservedly so. To him goes the credit for spotting the index case and correctly diagnosing the outbreak as bubonic plague, much to the scepticism of some of his scornful peers. After the discovery, he launched a campaign to clean up slums and exterminate rats, the carriers of the plague.

His diagnosis prompted the British government to bring in four teams of independent experts to “confirm his findings” (Kalpish Ratna speculates that there might have been subtle racism behind the mistrust in the acumen of a native), most famously Haffkine, whose institute still stands in Parel. Viegas’ early diagnosis saved untold thousands of lives. Not stopping there, he personally inoculated around 18,000 residents with Haffkine’s serum.

Kalpish Ratna portrays Viegas as a “grave physician”, who after hours was a “dreamy-eyed romantic, inclined to music, a classicist who read Camões-but not Bocage”, a “sharp dresser with a luxuriant crop of curls he tried in vain to tamp with pomade.” This is an imaginative description, given the little that is known of his personal life.

Parallel Lives

There are many parallels between the lives of Dr Acacio Viegas and my own great-grandfather Gen Dr Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936). They both were Goan doctors, of course, but they also inhabited similar timelines, being born two years apart and dying three years from each other.

Both of them were at the forefront of the campaign against the plague, though at different times and different places (1896 onwards in the case of Viegas in Bombay; the first decade or so of the 20th century in Goa for Dias) and from slightly different vantage points. While Viegas was in private practice, Dias was at the helm of both the Escola Médica and Serviços de Saúde (Health Services). From all available accounts, both did not discriminate between the rich and the poor. Both saw the connection between public health and civic administration: Viegas became president (the first native Christian to do so) of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1906, while Dr Dias was president of the first Provincial Congress of Goa and also mayor of the Municipal Council of Ilhas.

Both had statues erected in their memory for their services to humanity in combating the same disease under colonial regimes. Dias received this honour in his lifetime, while Viegas got it three years posthumously in 1936, incidentally the year of Dias’ death.

An affluent Hindu family that had to leave its house and live in huts in Malad because of the prevalence of the plague in their neighbourhood. Credit: Wikimedia Commons[reative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license].

As I am from the family of Dr Miguel Caetano Dias, I am privy to much about his life, even his early years, thanks to remembrances passed down as oral history through generations. I was unable to find any information on Viegas’ years growing up in Arpora. But his descendants must presumably have a similar oral history, perhaps even photographs. As things stand, there is just one photograph in the public domain from his later years, and of course pictures of the statue in Mumbai.

Kalpish Ratna bestows a wife, Paloma, and two unnamed children on him, although a genealogy website says his wife’s name was Amelia. I couldn’t find any further information on his Arpora years or about his family. Where was his family house in Arpora? Does it still stand?

I also couldn’t help but wonder: what prompted Viegas’ parents to send him to St Xavier’s High School in Bombay after his primary education (primeiro grau) in Goa? Having completed his matriculation with distinction in 1874, he enrolled in Grant Medical College, getting a First Class at the Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery degree examination in 1880. After that he set up private practice in Mandvi in South Bombay. From there he made history.

In contrast, my great-grandfather finished his school education in Portuguese Goa and then proceeded to study medicine in Lisbon. He went on to make history too. But Viegas and Dias occupied two different worlds, the Anglophone and the Lusophone.

The main reason young Miguel Caetano chose Lisbon for his medical studies must have been the fact that his brother was already there. But was Bombay ever an option? It would have certainly been cheaper, and closer to home. And it would have surely shaped the story of his descendants quite differently. Interestingly enough, though he did not study in Bombay, he did marry a ‘Bombay’ girl named Veronica, sister of Dr Austin da Silva, who founded Holy Family hospital in the suburb of Bandra.

A Hindu cremation during the plague. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License].

My great-grandmother Veronica da Silva Dias, although fluent in Portuguese, seems to have preferred English. This is clear from her letters to her eldest son, my grandfather Dr Vítor Manuel Dias. She would begin in Portuguese, “Meu querido filho” (My dear son), but after a few lines lapse into English.

What the separate trajectories of Dr Acacio Viegas and Dr Miguel Caestano Dias demonstrate is how profoundly the medium of instruction (in these cases, English and Portuguese) can set one on completely different life paths. That said, Viegas and Dias would certainly have known of each other, and perhaps corresponded with or even met each other.

I have not explored primary sources on the plague in Goa, but the secondary sources I have read only touch upon the sanitary measures employed. It is eminently plausible that the plague came to Goa from Bombay. Did its treatment come from there too? Were plague vaccines (serum, specifically the Haffkine serum; Haffkine even worked for a while in Daman) imported from Bombay? Or did politics or financial considerations come in the way? I would love to know more.

This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa. It has been reproduced with the permission of the writer.