Home Header News Into the life of Dr Dilip Mahalanabis, the ORS pioneer

Into the life of Dr Dilip Mahalanabis, the ORS pioneer

The foremost handy solution recommended by doctors in cases like vomiting or loose motion is Oral rehydration solution (ORS).
Even though ORS has become a part of our life, a lot of us unfortunately do not know about the person who proved its effectiveness in front of the world by saving millions of lives and brought about a revolutionary change into the treatment of diarrhoea. Dr Dilip Mahalanabis breathed his last at a private hospital in Kolkata early on Sunday at the age of 88.

Oral rehydration solution (ORS)

‘ORS is safe and can be used to treat anyone suffering from diarrhoea, before a detailed diagnosis is done by the doctor. Adults need rehydration treatment as much as children, although children must always be treated immediately because they become dehydrated more quickly,’ says the National Health Portal.
NHP has also suggested how to prepare ORS at home with clean water (1 litre – 5 cupful, each cup about 200 ml), sugar – six level teaspoons (1 teaspoon = 5grams) and salt – half level teaspoon. ‘The home-made solution is adequate in most cases and is very effective for rehydration. Be very careful to mix the correct amounts. Too much sugar can make the diarrhoea worse and too much salt can be extremely harmful to the child,’ suggests NHP.

Saving lives during 1971 war

Dr Mahalanabis chose to lead a humble life away from publicity.  Hence, many people do not even know his contribution in saving thousands of lives! Dr Mahalanabis played a key role in saving lives during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
When the war broke out, refugees from East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) started flocking to India in huge numbers. Since the refugee camps did not have clean drinking water and proper arrangements for sanitation, dehydration, cholera and diarrhoea took over. However, shortage of intravenous saline also became a problem.
Dr Mahalanabis, who was associated with the Johns Hopkins University International Center for Medical Research and Training at that time, saved thousands of people affected by cholera at the Bangaon refugee camp by administering oral rehydration therapy or ORT. He reportedly prepared ORS for the masses by mixing table salt, baking soda and glucose. Dr Mahalanabis took a huge risk by administering this because ORS was not recognized as a form of treatment at that time.

His initial years

Born in 1934 in Kishoregunj of undivided Bengal (now in Bangladesh), Dr Mahalanabis shifted to West Bengal after partition. Dr Mahalanabis completed his education from Kolkata and London. In 1958, Dr Mahalanabis started his career as an intern at the pediatric department after obtaining his medical degree from Calcutta Medical College Hospital.
In the 1960s, he applied at the newly launched National Health Service in London. He reportedly did DCH in London and MRCPO from Edinburgh. After that, the 28-year-old joined the post of registrar at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, being the first Indian to be in that position.

Teaching the world about ORS

After his unprecedented success in cholera treatment at the 1971 refugee camps, Dr Mahalanabis penned a detailed a paper talking about the application of ORS, which was published in The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal in 1973. Later, ‘The Lancet’ magazine also recognized his research findings calling it ‘the most important medical discovery of the 20th century.’
This is how, with Dr Mahalanabis’ efforts ORS got worldwide recognition as an alternative to IV (intravenous) in cholera or diarrhea. He was also honored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

Dr Mahalanabis – career and accolades

The WHO eventually acknowledged ORS as the standard method for treatment of cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases. Dr Mahalanabis was appointed as a member of the WHO’s Diarrhoeal Diseases Control Programme in 1983 with which he was associated for over five years.
In 1990, he established the Society For Applied Studies at Kolkata with a vision of improved health and quality of life especially for women and children in India and other developing countries.
Dr Mahalanabis reportedly served as the Director of Clinical Research at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh. He was also elected as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1994.
In 2002, Dr. Mahalanabis was awarded the first Pollin Prize in Pediatric Research for contributions to the discovery and implementation of oral rehydration therapy together with Dr. Nathaniel Pierce.
Mahalanabis had donated Rs 1 crore from his savings to the Institute of Child Health (ICH), Kolkata. The money was used to build a new ward for children, named after him and his wife Prof Jayanti Mahalanabis.
The ward named after Dr Mahalanabis and his wife at ICH, Kolkata


Living a life away from publicity, Dr Mahalanabis passed away in Kolkata reportedly due to a lung infection and age-related ailments on Sunday. However, the savior of millions has left behind his revolutionary work in the medical field, which will serve as an inspiration for generations to come and keep saving countless lives from diarrhoea.