More than Meets the Eye - 19th International Congress of Ophthalmology, India 1962


India, SG 462, 1962

Next up in our tour through medical philately is the 19th International Congress of Ophthalmology. I know; I know. This may not be the kind of title that makes you burst with dramatic anticipation. Remember though, the idea I'm trying to get at in this blog is that the story underlying the stamp defines its meaning. With that being said, let's briefly review some basics about this stamp (1):


Design

The imagery of the stamp, namely the "Ajenta" eye in a lotus, corresponds to the emblem of the 19th Congress (1, 2). Try as I might, I could not learn anything about the symbolism behind the Ajenta eye. Perhaps it is associated with the ancient artwork of the Ajanta caves (3)? The lotus flower, however, has a much clearer meaning in Indian cultures. For example, it is associated with purity and beauty in Hinduism. In fact, the God Krishna is apparently referred to as the "Lotus eyed one," which may explain the appearance of the flower in the emblem (4). Aside from the design, what else should you know about this stamp?

  • It was released on December 3rd, 1962 as a commemorative issue

  • Release occurred during the opening ceremonies of the 19th Congress

  • The value is 15 naya paisa. A naya paisa was 1/100th of a rupee from 1957-1964 (following the shift from the anna discussed here), after which the term "paisa" was used (5).

Clearly, the Indian Department of Posts (and Indian Government by extension) valued the ophthalmology conference enough to select it as one of 15 commemorative issues in 1962. So what exactly did it mean to host this conference anyway? Let's look at three factors: 1) Recognition, 2) Shaping global priorities, and 3) External events affecting India at the time.


1) Recognition

The XIX International Congress of Ophthalmology may have meant much to many Ophthalmologists of the world but to Indian Ophthalmologists it meant something very special. It meant the recognition of Asian Ophthalmology, it meant an Indian President of the International, it eared the thrill of a concerted attempt by [all] Indian Ophthalmologists to shoulder the task of a successful International. Above all it meant a fillip to research and some original work in Ophthalmology from all the corners of the country. It meant hope for India's four million economically blind, as accent was to be laid on some of the tropical diseases leading to blindness... (2)


The above words from Dr. S.N. Cooper, a major Indian ophthalmologist in the 20th century (Read about his story here), poignantly reflect the pride, optimism, and prestige that this Congress brought for India. For example, consider the impact of recognition. First of all, the event was "held under the auspices of the International Council of Ophthalmology" and was

The 8th International Congress of Ophthalmology, 1894 (9)

attended and praised by globally recognized leaders at the time, like Sir Stewart Duke-Elder (7). This Congress is the "oldest continuing medical congress" today and at the time, it was previously hosted four times by the US alone. India was only the second Afro-Asian country (Egypt being the first in 1937) to host this world-renowned event, so it was definitely a big deal (8). It is plausible to think of this Congress as a culmination of global appreciation for India's role in furthering eye disease research and treatment. Previously, Dr. Francis Adler heralded the inauguration of the first Indian ophthalmology journal - Journal of the All-India Ophthalmological Society - in the 1954 edition of the American Medical Association Archives of Ophthalmology (10):


A new ophthalmic journal has appeared which gives promise of bringing us into closer relationships with our colleagues in the Far East. The first three issues . . . reflects the great improvement in the teaching and practice of ophthalmology in India . . . The first three issues are of a high standard . . . Many ophthalmologists in this country will be particularly interested in the reports of tropical ophthalmological diseases . . .


It can thus be presumed that the 19th Congress was a further recognition of India's emergence as a center of high-quality research and an important point of reference for the West on tropical eye diseases. This alone would merit philatelic commemoration...but wait, there's more! The very occurrence of the Congress was meaningful, but its influence in highlighting tropical eye diseases suggested a long-term impact.


2) Shaping Global Priorities

Even today, tropical eye diseases cause millions of cases of preventable blindness around the world - with the burden of these diseases disproportionally falling on swathes of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (11). One can then imagine that in the 1950's and 1960's, research on these diseases would be prioritized more by the countries that faced the brunt of their impact. Indeed, Dr. Adler opined just as much when commenting on how an Indian ophthalmology journal would provide a much-needed window for Western medical professionals into tropical eye disease research.


Post-Independence India certainly had to overcome multiple challenges in battling eye disease. For example, trachoma was still hyper-endemic to certain drier states like Punjab, where transmission occurred easily in rural villages. Moreover, refugees of the 1947

Massive refugee migration occurred during Partition (18)

Partition initially overwhelmed healthcare systems in border states like Punjab, where "external eye infections, particularly trachoma, were extremely common"(12). While such research topics were amply discussed within Indian ophthalmology circles (13), the Congress brought larger attention to relevant tropical diseases in general, as was extolled by Dr. Cooper. Research conferences are critical opportunities for scientists from all over the world to discuss cutting-edge and important topics in a given field. The 19th Congress offered a clear focus on diseases important to India, with Symposia and Reports on topics like Eales Disease (which today is predominantly found in India, ref. 14) and tropical parasitological diseases (2). The first Afro-Asian Congress on Ophthalmology in 1958 (which India participated in) had a similar goal of bringing attention to regional eye diseases (15).

Image of rear eye in eales disease (19)

Clearly, the 19th Congress continued this conversation with a wider audience. Moreover, the research and discussion at this event was externally praised for its high quality, which indicates that attending delegates engaged with the topics (7). Thus, the event certainly brought Indian Ophthalmology's voice to the global table in terms of shaping priorities in eye disease research. Commemoration on a stamp during the opening ceremonies of the event drove the point home and ensured that the stamp's message would be carried beyond India's borders (2). Meanwhile, there was concurrently a very different crisis occurring at India's north-eastern border.


3) External Events - War

While India's then Prime Minister Nehru had attempted to build friendly relations with China in the 1950's, this vision was rudely shattered by China's invasion of India in October, 1962 (16). The exact reasons and outcomes of the conflict are beyond the scope of this article, but the war understandably cast a shadow over the 19th Congress, which was held in December

A bunker from the 1962 Sino-Indian war (20)

of the same year. Dr. S.N. Cooper explained that while declaration of a cease-fire in November allowed the conference to still happen, the conflict still deterred many delegates from attending (2). India suffered defeat in the war (17), and its negative impact on the International Congress must have amplified feelings of embarrassment at the world stage. While there is no explicit linkage between this idea and the commemorative stamp, the very fact that the Congress could still be a success makes it plausible that the philatelic release was also intended to boost Indian standing both in the world and for its own constituents at a pressing time.


Final Takeaways

This is my second post in the "Medical Philately" series. It is once again really powerful that a simple stamp can connect a medical field, a country's development, and even international politics. Countries make a rational and deliberate decision on what they will feature on their stamps. By taking the time to explore these decisions, we can better understand how official narratives relate to actual historical events and medical discourse.


References

  1. “Stamps 1947-2000.” Postage Stamps:: Postage Stamps,Stamp Issue Calender 2014, Paper Postage, Commemorative and Definitive Stamps, Service Postage Stamps, Philately Offices, Philatelic Bureaux and Counters, Mint Stamps (Unused Stamps), Department of Posts, Ministry of Communications, Government of India, postagestamps.gov.in/Stamps_List.aspx.

  2. Cooper, S N. “XIX. International Congress of Ophthalmology.” Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 11, no. 1, 1963, pp. 25–29., doi:http://www.ijo.in/article.asp?issn=0301-4738;year=1963;volume=11;issue=1;spage=25;epage=29;aulast=Cooper.

  3. Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Ajanta Caves.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, UNESCO, whc.unesco.org/en/list/242/.

  4. The Hindu. “Lotus-Eyed One.” The Hindu, THG PUBLISHING PVT LTD., 12 July 2013, www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/religion/lotuseyed-one/article4909220.ece.

  5. “Republic India Coinage.” Reserve Bank of India - Museum, Reserve Bank of India, www.rbi.org.in/Scripts/mc_republic.aspx.

  6. Engineer, Willy. “Obituary.” Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 23, no. 4, 1975, pp. 44–45., doi:http://www.ijo.in/article.asp?issn=0301-4738;year=1975;volume=23;issue=4;spage=44;epage=45;aulast=Engineer.

  7. “19th International Congress of Ophthalmology.” Canadian Medical Association Journal , vol. 88, 18 May 1963, pp. 1045-1045, doi:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1921304/pdf/canmedaj00996-0057.pdf.

  8. “Past Congresses.” International Council of Ophthalmology, International Council of Ophthalmology, www.icoph.org/refocusing_education/world_ophthalmology_congress/past_congresses.html.

  9. Ayton, Alexander. “Eighth International Ophthalmological Congress, Edinburgh. Photograph by Alexander Ayton, 1894.” Wellcome Collection, Wellcome Collection, wellcomecollection.org/works/u9stevpd. (CC by 4.0)

  10. Adler, F. H. “Journal Of All-India Ophthalmological Society.” Archives of Ophthalmology, vol. 52, no. 2, Aug. 1954, pp. 173-173, doi:10.1001/archopht.1954.00920050175001.

  11. Sandford-Smith, John. Eye Diseases in Hot Climates. 2nd ed., Butterworth-Heinemann, 1990.

  12. Basu, Prasanta Kumar. “An Ophthalmologist's Journey along Uncharted Paths.” Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 43, no. 2, 1995, pp. 89–94., doi:http://www.ijo.in/article.asp?issn=0301-4738;year=1995;volume=43;issue=2;spage=89;epage=94;aulast=Basu.

  13. Ursekar, T N. “Statistical Analysis of the Incidence, Relative and Absolute, of Trachoma in India and in Bombay State.” Indian Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 2, no. 4, 1954, pp. 94–108., doi:http://www.ijo.in/article.asp?issn=0301-4738;year=1954;volume=2;issue=4;spage=94;epage=108;aulast=Ursek.

  14. Lauer, Andreas K, et al. “Eales Disease.” EyeWiki, American Academy of Ophthalmology, 18 Dec. 2018, eyewiki.aao.org/Eales_Disease.

  15. Cordes, Frederick C. “FIRST AFRO-ASIAN CONGRESS OF OPHTHALMOLOGY.” California Medicine, vol. 91, no. 1, July 1959, pp. 52–52., doi:https://europepmc.org/scanned?pageindex=1&articles=PMC1577841.

  16. India Today Web Desk. “India-China War of 1962: How It Started and What Happened ...” India Today, India Today, 21 Nov. 2016, www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/india-china-war-of-1962-839077-2016-11-21.

  17. Dutta, Amrita Nayak, et al. “On This Day in 1962, India Learnt a Harsh Lesson from China.” ThePrint, Print, Reach of Digital, 20 Oct. 2018, theprint.in/defence/on-this-day-in-1962-india-learnt-a-harsh-lesson-from-china/137405/.

  18. “Partition of Punjab, India 1947.” Wikimedia Commons, Columbia University, 1 Jan. 1947, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?sort=relevance&search=india+partition+train&title=Special:Search&profile=advanced&fulltext=1&advancedSearch-current=%7B%7D&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Partition_of_Punjab,_India_1947.jpg. (Public Domain)

  19. Biswas, Jyotirmay, et al. “Eales' Disease - Current Concepts in Diagnosis and Management.” Journal of Ophthalmic Inflammation and Infection, vol. 3, no. 1, 14 Jan. 2013, p. 11., doi:10.1186/1869-5760-3-11. (CC by 2.0)

  20. Dalui, Kunal. “Indo China War Bunker 1962 Jaswant Garh.” Wikimedia Commons, 19 May 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?sort=relevance&search=sino+indian+war+1962&title=Special:Search&profile=advanced&fulltext=1&advancedSearch-current=%7B%7D&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Indo_China_War_Bunker_1962.JPG. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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