The Welsh farmer turned doctor who dedicated his life to the poor

Dr Jack Preger MBE, a graduate of RCSI, has dedicated his medical career to providing healthcare to the poor of Kolkata.

To understand the commitment and life’s work of Dr Jack Preger MBE (RCSI Class of 1971) you have to imagine human suffering on a large scale, extreme poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, filth and corruption. Now, in his late 80s, Dr Preger is Honorary Chairperson of Calcutta Rescue, the global non-governmental organisation he founded, and which continues the work that he began four decades ago.

Today this non-profit healthcare system treats more than 50,000 people a year and operates two schools for children from the poorest communities. Dr Preger was the first to introduce the concept of free street-medicine to people whose lives were harsh in the extreme. Jack Preger’s story in Kolkata began with a eureka moment in 1965 when, as a 35-year old farmer, he was driving his tractor on a remote hillside setting in Wales. He reflected on his growing need to restore meaning to his life. Struck by the thought, however illogical, of becoming a doctor, he felt compelled to do just that. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Manchester (he later became a member of the Catholic Church), Jack Preger was accepted as a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, before becoming a farmer. His decision to study medicine would mean turning his life upside down, selling his farm in a depressed property market, and somehow finding a place in medical school. He enrolled as a mature student at RCSI in Dublin and completed his internship – at the age of 42.

In 1972, he answered an appeal for doctors to help with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh where he witnessed unimaginable human suffering. During this period, he exposed a non-governmental organisation, implicating it in a child-smuggling operation resulting in him being arrested and deported in 1979. His Dhaka clinic, set up for mothers and babies in 1975, was closed down, with patients literally thrown out on the street. Some died as a result.

Dr Preger returned days later, and moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to work for Mother Teresa, but discovered that her work did lack some expertise in terms of professional practice medicine. With no license to practice legally in India, he began treating the sick and injured where they lay – under bridges, on railway platforms and in drainage pipes – but found difficulty following cases up, as the police were constantly moving them on. Finally, he spread the word that he would treat people at the roadside outside St Thomas’ Presbytery, where he was allowed to store his medical supplies. This was Dr Preger’s first street clinic, called Middleton Row. Under sagging tarpaulins, the “pavement clinic” attracted the city’s destitute, diseased and dispossessed until it stretched along the street for about 70 metres.

Joined by volunteers inspired by his example, and supported by donations from those who witnessed his selfless work, Dr Preger sat at the side of the road, six days a week, providing free medical treatment: wound and burn dressings, a central “consultation centre,” pharmacy, dispensary and a “welfare department” which distributed food, clothing, and small amounts of money to pay for transportation.

During the 14 years of the clinic’s existence, Dr Preger was hounded for his “illegal status”, threatened by Mafia groups, and at one stage thrown into Alipore Jail. His case dragged on for years while the Middleton Row clinic carried on its vital work, often treating up to 500 patients a day. The clinic led to the establishment of Calcutta Rescue, an official body whose vital work carries on to this day.

Dr Preger has admitted that he sacrificed a balanced personal life and perhaps jeopardised a more traditional medical career for his life’s work but his unique contribution to humanity is widely acknowledged.