Close up of Jack Preger Calcutta pavement doctor

Dr. Jack Preger 

        In 1979, a British doctor called Jack Preger arrived in Calcutta, India. He had come from six years assisting with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh. There, he had exposed heinous trafficking in children which implicated some officials. As a result, the mother and child clinic he had created was torn down. Patients were thrown out in the street. Some died as a result. Jack was deported.

     In Calcutta, he initially worked with Mother Teresa, but found the lack of hygiene medically unacceptable. Officially not permitted to practice medicine, but recognising a dire need among the poor, he first treated people where they 'lived' -- under bridges, in drainage pipes and railway platforms. This led to the creation of a 'centralised' treatment area - a rudimentary medical clinic erected at the side of the road.

     It operated under tarpaulins along the pavement of a city street called Middleton Row. As a reflection on the city's inadequate health care, the authorities were embarrassed by its existence. They were also uncomfortable about Jack's unofficial presence in the country. At one stage he was imprisoned in Alipore Jail on immigration charges. As a source of non revenue to the street Mafia, he was constantly threatened by local undesirables. Searing heat, monsoon rains and choking air pollution added to the difficulties. Nothing came easily, except the ever-growing numbers of sick, injured and suffering patients who came to this British doctor for treatment. On one occasion, it handled over 500 cases in a single day.

    The pavement clinic stretched for over 70 metres. It contained several different "departments" each with a volunteer supervisor. These comprised consultation and treatment areas; a pharmacy; a dispensary; a medical records/appointments section and a welfare desk. In needy cases, the latter provided cash for public transport, baby foods, nutritional supplies, and other basic necessities. This sprawling creation was assembled every day at dawn, and dismantled at dusk. Privacy during medical examinations was provided by hand held curtains of fabric. Many cases involved injuries, infections or burns which could be treated on site, medication prescribed, and followed up. In other examples, samples were sent for laboratory investigations. Serious or surgical cases were referred to hospitals. All expenses were paid for.

    Unsurprisingly, this structure became one of the most extraordinary sights of any major city, anywhere.

Pavement clinic of Dr Jack Preger in Calcutta

The clinic operated six days a week, for 14 years.

        As might be imagined, this did not just last just a month or so. Supported by donations, it operated six days a week for fourteen years, from 1979 to 1993. It has provided free medical care to hundreds of thousands of poor people and pavement dwellers. Jack hired local doctors who were prepared to work for tiny salaries, or in some cases, for free. Curious backpackers came to see the clinic. Many of them, astounded and inspired by the work, cancelled their travel plans and became volunteers. Some of them will no doubt read this, and recall just how basic, yet how truly wonderful, it was. The 'work' (as Jack always called it) was finally registered as a charity named Calcutta Rescue in 1991. It continues to this day. 

       Like everybody else, the author of this online book was astonished by witnessing the selfless philanthropy and dedication of the doctor. A friendship ensued. This on line book of 17 chapters form a record of his life, distilled from tape recordings made with him.