Born in 1918 in Vadamalapuram, Tamil Nadu, India, Govindappa Venkataswamy was educated at American College, Madurai and Stanley Medical College, Madras, before qualifying with a MSc in Ophthalmology at the Government Ophthalmic Hospital, Madras.
Govindappa Venkataswamy (October 1, 1918 – July 7, 2006) was an Indian ophthalmologist and 1973 recipient of Padma Shri award. Dr Venkataswamy was the founder of Aravind Eye Hospitals, which are one of the biggest network of ophthalmology hospitals in the world and perform nearly 50 percent of all eye surgeries in India.
He served with the Indian Army as a physician during 1945-48 when he was discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis. During this time Dr V, as he is referred as, was practically bed-ridden, unable to perform basic functions such as standing on his own. His fingers were crippled. It is a pure testimony to his willpower and diligence that he was not only able to hold a pen again but also perform delicate surgeries. He then joined the Government Madurai Medical College as the Head of Department of Ophthalmology and the Government Erskine Hospital, Madurai as eye surgeon. He held these posts for 20 years and contributed to research, clinical service and community programmes. He became the Head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Government Madurai Medical College in 1956. He performed over 100,000 successful eye surgeries, and this despite having fingers that were badly affected with juvenile arthritis. During this period, Dr V addressed the problem of preventable blindness by initiating mobile clinics in far-flung villages and rural areas. As a young man he followed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo Ghosh.
Dr V met Sir John Wilson, founder of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind, later known as Sightsavers International, an organization that was supporting eye camps in India, during his first visit to USA in 1965 and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. The duo approached the then prime minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, to establish a national level organisation to control blindness. In 1977, at the mandatory retirement age of 58, Venkataswamy founded the Aravind Eye Hospital at Madurai. Begun as an eleven-bed hospital manned by four medical officers, it is now one of the largest facilities in the world for eye care. He declared that the mission of the hospital was “to eradicate needless blindness” and developed mass marketing and surgical processes resembling an assembly line in order to assist with the estimated 12 million blind people of India, 80 per cent of whom suffer so because of cataract. While working for the government, Dr V oversaw the growing number of eye camps in the state of Tamil Nadu and developed a big network of friends and well wishers who would join in or support his cause in later years. His system enabled Aravind to provide free eye care to two-thirds of its patients from the revenue generated from its one-third paying patients. Venkataswamy was conferred Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1973.