Doctors Zacharias Peter Fernandez and Upendra Dutt

A brief look at two Indian doctors who served working class Leeds and working class Cambridge respectively – and earning the gratitude and appreciating of those they served.

Out of all of the people who have had the biggest impact on Mill Road, Cambridge, Dr Upendra Dutt has got to be on the shortlist along with his Swedish wife Anne Palme, who amongst other things was a prominent activist in the Cambridge Women’s Liberal Association.

Above – Dr Upendra Dutt, from the Palmer Clark glass plate negative archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Until the discovery of the glass plate negatives, I and others had not been aware of any other photographs of Dr Dutt. I commissioned the Cambridgeshire Collection to produce a large A4 print, of which this is a low-res snapshot.

Above – Anne Palme Dutt, from the Palmer Clark glass plate negative archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Local historian Jo Costin recently did a talk on the couple for the Mill Road History Society and so probably knows more about them than the rest of us. Once Lockdown is over it might be worth seeing if she can do a follow up event.

What makes these two significant in the history of Cambridge town is they founded the the Petersfield Medical Practice on Mill Road near the Swimming Pool. Caro Wilson for the Mill Road History Society stated the following in a local newsletter:

“Did you know that 25 Mill Road, now the home of the Petersfield Surgery, was set up as a surgery by Upendra Dutt, who first travelled to Britain
from India about 1875 as a Gilchrist Scholar to read medicine. He and his family lived in the house and during the 1890’s he and his politically active wife, Anna Palme held meetings of the Majlis Society whose members included Subhas Chanda Bose and Jawaharal Nehru, both important figures
of Indian Nationalism. His sons, Clemens Palme Dutt and Rajani Palme Dutt were founder members of the British Communist Party, as well as of the Indian Nationalist Movement, both, it is believed, inspired by their
father’s experiences as a doctor in a very poor working class area.”

One of the reasons we are able to find out about the Dutts is because of the local newspaper reports that covered deaths and inquests.

Above – from 1900 in the Cambridge Independent Press. Dr Dutt is reported giving evidence to The Coroner regarding the death of a child he was called to. British Newspaper Archive.

Dr Dutt would spend the next 20 years as a Poor Law Guardian for Cambridge – finally retiring in 1920, having also by that time become a District Medical Officer for Cambridge.

Overall, Dr Dutt gave 28 years of service as a Poor Law Guardian. Note further down Mill Road was the old Poor Law Union House – one of the oldest buildings on the road still standing. Note as well the presence of a number of civic titans on the committee, including Lady Darwin (likely Ida), Florence Ada Keynes, and Algernon Sidney Campkin the Chemist and of Campkins Cameras fame.

The case of Zacharias Peter Fernandez in Leeds

This is a very interesting case because although I’ve not found evidence yet of Dr Dutt being on the receiving end of abuse and discrimination regarding his ethnicity (other than from his wife’s family – who disowned the pair in a show of disapproval of their marriage), Dr Fernandez found himself forced out of the tuberculosis service in Leeds that he had built from scratch, with various accusations being made that he was being targeted because of his ethnicity.

Above – Z.P. Fernandez in 1941 from the Meanwood Park Archive

Dr Fernandez trained at the University of Leeds and served for a number of years in the city’s Tuberculosis Department. He later became the Assistant TB officer for the city, and later acting Chief Clinical TB Officer. Yet there were various rumours going around that he had been overlooked for the permanent chief role on grounds of his ethnicity.

What is notable is that the Health Committee felt the need to go on public record. One of the reasons for this were sensitivities to what was happening in India – then still under British control. Only a few years later, Gandhi would visit Cambridge. Accordingly, Dr Fernandez was amongst a number of higher profile public servants whose experiences were being followed far beyond the city he lived and worked in.

When the Ministry of Health was brought in to try and resolve the situation, they allegedly found some discrepancies with Dr Fernandez’s work and ‘invited him to resign’.

Part of the problem the City Council had was they said they would be bound by whatever the Ministry recommended. The problem was that after years of serving the poor in Leeds – including many former soldiers wounded in the First World War, he had become a very popular figure in working class communities.

Above – one of the ex-servicemen’s clubs passing a resolution in support of Dr Fernandez.

So when his contract was terminated, all hell broke loose.

A number of councillors spoke out in support of Dr Fernandez.

The action by Leeds Council led to a vote of censure by the Leeds Labour Party against their own councillors who had voted for the council motion to terminate Dr Fernandez’s contract.

It wasn’t just the men that were protesting – it was the women as well.

…and one socialist activist went as far threatening to stand for election against the official Labour candidate over the issue.

Mr Ryan carried through his threat and resigned from Labour to stand as an independent.

After that, the newspaper archive trail runs dry….then reappears again in 1930 where we find that Leeds Labour Party selected Dr Fernandez as a candidate in the municipal elections in what can only be described as a safe-as-castle seat of Richmond Hill – so safe that the Tories and Liberals didn’t stand candidates, leaving it to the Communists to make up the opposition.

Dr Fernandez served as a councillor for the next 23 years, after which he was nominated to the Aldermen’s Bench

The last we hear of Dr Fernandez is a nomination (ultimately unsuccessful) for Lord Mayor of Leeds.

And that’s where his story ends as the British Newspaper Archive is concerned – until they scan more newspapers! They still have hundreds of millions of pages to scan from newspapers across the country. What this shows is the power of keyword searches in finding the stories of those that shaped our towns and cities, and help make them what they are today.

Blue Plaques.

In Cambridge, you can nominate historical figures who have been deceased for more than ten years, for a civic blue plaque. See Cambridge Past, Present, and Future for details. See also the Museum of Cambridge.

In Leeds, although their scheme is on hold, the Leeds Civic Trust administers their scheme. Dr Fernandez might be a candidate as an exception to the rule. See also Leeds Museum.

One thought on “Doctors Zacharias Peter Fernandez and Upendra Dutt

  1. My mother used to say to me in the 1950s when I offered any medical advice as a child with notions presumably above my station ‘You’re a right Doctor Dutt’, Which I didn’t understand! Now I wonder if it referred to this person who was also regarded as practising ‘above his station in life’. It maybe had passed into common parlance??


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