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How Prafulla Chandra Ray discovered Corona-like ‘Burdwan fever’ of 1860s

2 May, 2020 01:19:09
How Prafulla Chandra Ray discovered Corona-like ‘Burdwan fever’ of 1860s

Burdwan in Bengal was once upon a time considered to be a very healthy place in the 1840s-50s and doctors prescribed patients to go there on holidays to revive their health. But that very Burdwan in the 1860s along with adjoining Hooghly district had turned into a death valley with almost 70% of the population dying of an unknown fever that was named as the Burdwan Fever. This particular fever had symptoms like Flu or the very recent COVID-19, with high fever, could, shivers, rashes and much more. Some British doctors over the years even thought it was similar to Kala-zar, though later it was proved that was not so. 

While going through the historical origin of this unknown Burdwan fever, Prafulla Chandra Ray, who was also the founder of Bengal Chemicals, was drawn to a historical event of British India. Since 1858, the East India Company started laying down railway tracks in the area and for that they started erecting dams on different streams and rivers. Most of the rivers of Burdwan had their origins in the Chotonagpur Plateau and they were primarily rain-fed streams, other than Damodar, that was the largest river of the area. Before the British erected the dams, the rivers had enough water specially during monsoon and used to wash away dirt, pathogens, mosquito eggs, insect eggs etc that could be potential reasons for growing of germs. But once the dams were erected most of these rivers went dry and others formed puddles and streams which were not flowing water. The accumulated water was dirty, could not be even used to irrigate the fields and was a breeding ground for different pathogens.

These ‘unknown’ pathogens gave rise to the deadly Burdwan fever wreaking havoc in the district along with Hooghly. As per the British records around 4 lakh people died and in Pandua alone, in 1862 around 1200 people died in a year. For 10 long years this fever created havoc and even British doctors had no clue what the disease was. In 1870, the Indian Medical Gadget mentioned Burdwan as ‘Jomer Bari’ or Valley of the Dead. Some doctors said the fever was something in between Kala-zar and Malignant Malaria. But the patients usually has a headache in the beginning, followed by high fever, respiratory distress and their lungs collapsed. Isn’t that something similar to COVID-19 symptoms? Some also had rashes, gum bleeding and the skin turned dark. By 1876 however, the fever gradually died down and the number of infected or deaths vanished.
Isn’t it uncanny that what Prafulla Chandra Ray realized in late 1800s, attributing the cause of such an unknown fever to the destruction of nature in his book, would come true again in 2020 with a similar fever wreaking havoc again?

(Translated from Prafulla Chandra Ray’s Prabandha Shangraha)  

Story Tag:
  • Prafulla Chandra Ray, Burdwan

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