Lives of the fellows

Shyamal Kumar Sen

b.1 April 1922 d.19 June 2011
MB BS Calcutta(1945) MD(1956) MRCP Edin(1960) FRCP Edin(1970) FRCP(2001)

Shyamal Kumar Sen was a distinguished Indian neurologist. He was born in the district of Bankura in West Bengal, India, the son of Bhowani Charan Sen, a legal practitioner, and Pratima Sen. He was educated first in Bankur, and then went on to Medical College, Calcutta, graduating in 1945. He had a brilliant academic career and was much inspired by such giants of medicine in Calcutta as M N De, Joges Chandra Banerjea [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.23] and Sailen Sen.

Sen started his teaching career as a tutor in physiology at his alma mater and later moved to the department of pathology. He was so engrossed in studying human pathology that at one stage he even contemplated taking up pathology as a career and started working for a PhD under the supervision of the then department head B P Trivedi. However, a change prevailed, and he shifted to the department of medicine to work on his MD thesis, on pulmonary eosinophilia. He passed his MD in 1956, and joined the Medical College Hospital as a resident physician – a very responsible and prestigious post in those days. It was J C Banerjea who inspired him to specialise in neurology and he sailed for UK.

He passed the MRCP (Edinburgh) examination with a special paper in neurology. Sen joined the National Hospital, Queen Square, London, as a clinical clerk and, as he used to often ruminate, he was first shown round the institute by B S Singhal, then a house officer and later to become a distinguished neurologist in Mumbai. At the National, Sen received training under such luminaries as James Purdon Martin [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VIII, p.323], John Marshall, Sir Gordon Holmes [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.195], Roger Gilliat [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.195] and Macdonald Critchley [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.83].

From the National, Sen moved to Maida Vale and the London Hospital to work with the great Lord Russell Brain [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.60]. It was here he truly received his neurology mentorship, though Lord Brain’s physical appearance was at variance with Sen’s preconceived idea of a really knowledgeable British teacher (as he often used to say jokingly to his close circle of students). He was also trained in clinical neurophysiology and often used to talk about his association at this stage with K S Mani, cofounder of the Indian Epilepsy Association.

Sen later moved to Birmingham to work with Edwin Bickerstaff [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web]. He made arrangements to proceed to USA to work with Derek Ernest Denny-Brown [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.146], but could not do so as he was called back to India by the Government.

Returning to Medical College Hospital, he soon established the department of neurology, which in the early days was combined with the department of medicine. For a long time Sen was somewhat reluctant to give up seeing general medical patients, though in his private practice he only saw patients with neurological illnesses. Later he became the professor and head of both departments. For a brief period in late 1970s, he was directed by the Government to take the charge of the department of neurology at the Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research, Calcutta, and the Bangur Institute of Neurology, where he started teaching and training neurology residents.

However, Sen clashed with the Government over policy matters and resigned. In 1979, he joined the Vivekananda Institute of Medical Sciences (VIMS) and established the department of neurology there. The present biographer joined him at VIMS on his return from UK in 1982. The department gradually flourished and the biographer fondly recollects Sen’s meticulous planning ideas, when the department was shifted to a new block. In 1985, Sen was appointed the dean of VIMS, a post he held until 1999. It was a time when his administrative skills were at a peak. It was astonishing how he co-ordinated teaching and training in over a dozen departments of the institute, and continuously fought with the university to have more postgraduate students posted in the institute for training.

Unfortunately, this colourful career came to a close (virtually) in 2003 when he had his first stroke and was left with marked expressive dysphasia. His zeal to interact with people and remain in touch with his students and with his subject could not be suppressed by his neurological disability. Until a few months before his death, he regularly attended most neurological meetings held in Kolkata, despite being in a wheelchair and being unable to communicate properly. His comprehension remained good.

Sen will be remembered as a superb bedside teacher and clinician. Generations of students will cherish their image of him standing by the bedside, dressed in his immaculate white suit and shiny patent leather shoes, attentively listening to the patient’s story, analysing symptoms and then using his legendary examination techniques (still copied by his many pupils today). Still ringing in the ears are some of Sen’s famous quotes: ‘if you are unable to make a clinical diagnosis by the time you have put your pen down, you would never be able to make it even after a full examination’ or his warning to ‘never parade your ignorance before an examiner’.

He was extremely caring and serious about his patients and would visit the hospital at any point during the day or night if he was unhappy with a patient’s condition.

No doubt he was tough and a taskmaster as a supervisor, but his caring attitude towards his residents was always evident. Residents used to be always on their toes and somewhat apprehensive, but at the same time enjoyed his company and respected him.

His organisational powers were superb. He helped found the West Bengal branch of the Association of Physicians of India and also the Association of Neuroscientists of Eastern India. He was president of the Association of Physicians of India in 1987 and president of Neurological Society of India in 1988 – a rare feat indeed!

Outside medicine, Sen was a deeply religious man, baptised at an early age by Swami Abhedananda (a direct disciple of Sri Sri Ramakrishna) and had extensive knowledge of ancient Hindu scriptures and Vedantic philosophy. At the same time his depth of knowledge in music and literature was immense. He could quote line after line from the Gita, the Upanishads, Tagore or Shakespeare, totally in context of the subject he was talking about. He even gained a diploma in Sanskrit while still a medical student.

Sen was a lifelong bachelor. At his death, he was survived by his brothers and sisters, and by hundreds of students who will cherish their memories of being taught and trained by him.

Ambar Chakrabarti

[Ann Indian Acad Neurol 2011 Jul-Sept;14(3):228-229]

(Volume XII, page web)

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