When a 23-year-old MBBS student who had just graduated from Government Medical College Amritsar, applied in the mid-1950s for the MD programme with specialisation in kidney diseases at Panjab University, its faculty of medicine turned it down, saying no such specialty existed. He was instead offered admission to its cardiology or gastroenterology course.
Not being the one to take no for an answer, he again applied for the same programme twice but received a rejection letter every time. When he applied yet again the university dean said with an air of resignation in his voice: “This kid seems to be crazy. Let him do what he wants”. That boy went on to create a new paradigm in the field of medicine in India and is now remembered as the “father of nephrology”.
Dr KS Chugh became the first Indian to receive the reputed Bywaters Award in recognition of his outstanding work and the sustained excellence of his research in the field of acute kidney injuries carried out over three decades. The award, instituted by the International Society of Nephrology (ISN), an international body representing specialists in kidney diseases whose headquarters are located in Brussels, and New Jersey, was conferred on him at the World Congress of Nephrology held in Cape Town, South Africa on March 16 (see box).
Chugh says back in the 1950s the terms renal transplant and dialysis were still not part of common medical discourse with both procedures being only a few months old.“In the early fifties I heard of efforts being undertaken to develop dialysis systems in the United States and was excited to learn about the first successful dialysis treatment,” he recalls.
He said after Panjab University finally approved his application, he ended up reporting on 50 successful renal biopsies. “My MD thesis, completed in 1958, is the first systematic study in the field of renal diseases in India and enabled me to become the first ‘qualified’ nephrologist in the country in 1961,” he added, proudly showing his thesis.
“After I read in the newspapers that the first kidney dialysis machine in the country was installed at Christian Medical College, Vellore, I travelled there in 1962 to see for myself how it functioned,” he said.
After a year spent at Hammersmith Hospital, London, Chugh returned to Chandigarh in 1968 and started a programme for long-term dialysis therapy at the city’s Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research. Since then he has made several original contributions in the field of tropical nephrology that have received national and international attention. The major area of his research has focused on etiopathogenesis of acute kidney injury associated with diarrheal diseases including HUS, malaria, obstetric accidents, snakebite and insect stings, G-6 P-D deficiency, copper intoxication and rhabdomylosis.
Later, he set up the first department of nephrology at PGI and introduced the first nephrology training programme in 1969. He has trained and mentored several generations of nephrologists who are now leaders in the field in India as well as abroad. Earlier the National Kidney Foundation of the United States has considered Chugh’s contributions to the renal community in India as “most outstanding” and the International Society of Nephrology has included him among the first 50 “legends” in the field from across the world.