Donovan, Charles

Charles Donovan (1863-1951)

Achievements:    Tropical Medicine:   Kalar Azar; LGV

Charles Donovan was born in Calcutta, India in 1863.   His father was an Irish Civil Servant in Bengal.   At the age of 13 he was sent to his grandfather in Cork, Ireland.   He went to Queens College Cork (UCC).   He gained his MD in 1889 in TCD.   He joined the Indian Medical Service (IMS) in 1891, and did army service for two years including the North West Frontier.

He then went to Madras Medical College, where he became Professor of Physiology, and became superintendent of the Royapettah Hospital.   He developed key research facilities at this hospital.   He is described as being tall and athletic, and kind and generous to his staff and patients.

He was particularly interested in Kalar Azar, a widespread tropical illness characterised by fever, diarrhoea, anaemia, weight loss, and enlargement of the spleen.   Epidemics of this caused high mortality.   In 1903, he noted intracellular organisms in a splenic biopsy in a patient suffering from Kalar Azar.   Leishman in England had also noticed such organisms in a post-mortem study, but attributed them to post-mortem changes.   After detailed discussions with Prof Ross, professor of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool, it was agreed that Donovan and Leishman had discovered a new organism that caused Kalar Azar.   This was described formally as Leishman-Donovan bodies, and formally named as Leishmania donovani.   This disease is endemic in tropical regions of the world, especially the Far East, Middle East, Africa, and America.

Charles Donovan also discovered the causative organism for donovanosis, named after him. Donovanosis is diagnosed by identification of the characteristic intracellular Donovan bodies. This manifests as genital lesions, and painless groin swelling which later ulcerates.

He realised the importance of good diet and nutrition for his patients, and considered it far more valuable than the medicines of his time.   He was an accomplished lecturer, often illustrating lectures with beautiful diagrams.   He encouraged research throughout the hospital, insisting that his students and colleagues develop their skills with the microscope.   He worked hard, holding ward rounds in the evenings and on Sundays, and shared his scientific literature and journals.

He had a keen interest in natural history, developing expertise in butterflies.   He was also a gifted artist, often eliciting cheers when drawing his images during a lecture.

He retired from the IMS in 1920, aged 57, and settled in Gloucester, England.   He frequently visited his sisters in Ummera House in Timoleague, West Cork.   They shared his interest in Natural History, and they went on many field trips together.     As an expert lepidopterist, studying moths and butterflies, he discovered the haunts of the White Prominent in Kerry, and the existence of Webbs Wainscot in coastal bogs of County Cork.

He died in 1951, aged 88.   His obituary in the BMJ speaks movingly of his great expertise in Tropical Medicine, his dedication, humour, humanity and varied interests.


1.        Coakley D   Irish Masters of Medicine   Town House 1997

2.        BMJ Obituary Nov 24 1951

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