Obituary: Founder of Sankara Nethralaya Dr SS Badrinath passes away, leaving behind a powerful legacy

'Work should continue even if I am no more' was Dr Badrinath's instruction, emphasising uninterrupted service in eye care at Sankara Nethralaya in Chennai.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Nov 21, 2023 | 3:32 PM Updated Nov 21, 2023 | 3:53 PM

Dr SS Badrinath. (Sankara Nethralaya)

Work should continue even if I am no more — this was the poignant instruction left by Dr SS Badrinath, the founder of Sankara Nethralaya and an eminent vitreoretinal surgeon, who passed away on Tuesday, 21 November, at the age of 83. He had been ill for some time.

Dr Badrinath, a visionary in the field of ophthalmology, insisted that his passing should not interrupt the vital work at Sankara Nethralaya. He preferred simple memorials, advocating that staff could wear black armbands in his honour but should continue their duties without pause.

His demise marks a significant loss to the medical community.

An early note from the institution read, “Our visionary Founder, a legend and compassionate leader Dr SS Badrinath passed away early this morning, The last rites will be held after 9.30 am today at the Besant Nagar Crematorium. SN is deeply saddened by the demise of our Founder.”

The life and times of SS Badrinath

Dr Sengamedu Srinivasa Badrinath Badrinath, born in 1940 in Chennai, is a distinguished figure in the field of ophthalmology, both nationally and globally. His commitment to providing quality, affordable eye care to all, regardless of social or economic status, led to the establishment of Sankara Nethralaya in 1978.

This initiative was not just a medical institution but a symbol of his vision to democratise healthcare in India.

Citing an article about Dr Badrinath, The Hindu said, “As a child, Dr SS Badrinath observed blindness close up when one of his relatives who was blind in both eyes came to stay with his family. The helplessness of a person without eyesight became deep-rooted in the young child’s memory.”

After completing his graduate studies in Ophthalmology in the United States between 1963 and 1968, Dr Badrinath specialised in vitreoretinal surgery at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary under Dr Charles Schepens from 1968 to 1970.

HIs return to India marked a turning point in the country’s ophthalmic care.

He was associated with the Sankara Math after he performed a cataract surgery on his spiritual guru Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal. Under the guidance of his spiritual mentors, in 1978, Badrinath set up Sankara Nethralaya as a unit of the Medical Research foundation.

Under his guidance, Sankara Nethralaya grew to embody his threefold mission: Delivering high quality eye care at affordable costs, educating and training ophthalmologists and paramedical staff to address India’s blindness epidemic, and pioneering research in vision sciences with a focus on issues prevalent in India.

As the chairman of Sankara Nethralaya, Dr Badrinath’s legacy is marked by numerous awards and recognitions. These include the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Dr BC Roy National Award, Dadabhai Naoroji Award, ICO Golden Apple Award, CNBC TV-18 India Business Leader Award, Lifetime Achievement Award by the All India Ophthalmological Society, and the Living Legend Award by NDTV.

Internationally, too, he given an honorary DSc from the the University of Missouri, USA, and inducted into the American Society of Retina Specialists’ Retina Hall of Fame.

Also read: Dry eyes troubling you? Probiotics could be the answer

‘Mentor, guide, friend beyond measure’ 

Speaking to South First, Dr Ravindra E Mohan, Honorary Professor of Ophthalmology, Dr MGR Medical University, and Director of Trinethra Eye Care in Chennai, fondly recounts his experiences with the late doctor, highlighting the profound impact he had both professionally and personally.

Late Dr Badrinath with Dr Ravindra Mohan and family. (Supplied)

Late Dr Badrinath with Dr Ravindra Mohan and family. (Supplied)

Dr Mohan was a colleague of Dr Badrinath at Sankara Nethralaya for over a decade.

Joining Sankara Nethralaya in late 1998, Dr Mohan was quickly taken under Dr Badrinath’s wing, who saw potential in him for the occuloplasty position.

Dr Mohan says that Dr Badrinath was not just a boss, but a mentor who “would push one harder by the day to achieve more and more”.

He vividly recalls Dr Badrinath’s philosophy: “Unless we push these young people at the deep end of the pool, they will never swim.” This approach exemplified Dr Badrinath’s commitment to fostering growth and excellence in his team.

More than a professional guide, Dr Badrinath was a kind, down-to-earth individual who nurtured close, familial relationships with his colleagues, Dr Mohan says.

He fondly remembers how Dr Badrinath attended his child’s first birthday on short notice, a testament to his warm and approachable nature. Even years after Dr Mohan left Sankara Nethralaya in 2009, this bond remained strong.

The photo of Dr Ravindra Mohan's family clicked by Dr Badrinath on his favourite tablet. (Supplied)

The photo of Dr Ravindra Mohan’s family clicked by Dr Badrinath on his favourite tablet. (Supplied)

He reminisced, “It is in the same close, familial, almost father-like fashion that he invited us many years after I left Shankar Nethralaya in 2009.” The bond they shared was special, transcending professional confines.

A touching gesture that stayed with Dr Mohan was when Dr Badrinath, in late 2017, invited his family over, keen to learn about their progress. Dr Mohan was moved by how Dr Badrinath took the initiative to photograph their family, remarking, “For a man of such stature, it is we who should, in fact, be asking him permission for a photograph. Instead, I saw him fiddling with his favourite tab and the next moment, he clicked our family picture. He then took a picture with all five of us.”

Moreover, Dr Badrinath’s thoughtfulness shone through when he presented gifts to all three of Dr Mohan’s boys, an act of kindness that was rare and heartfelt.

Dr Mohan describes Dr Badrinath as a humble, honest, and child-like gentleman, whose interactions transcended professional boundaries, creating lasting, heartfelt connections. These anecdotes serve as a poignant reminder of Dr Badrinath’s extraordinary character and the deep impact he left on those around him.

Also read: Obituary: Bhujang Shetty, Kannada ophthalmologist who helped millions

Condolences pour in

Tamil Nadu Congress Vice-President Rama Suganthan took to X and said in his post that Sankara Nethralaya hospital in Chennai has served many poor patients.

“My prayers and condolences to family and friends on demise of Dr Badrinath founder Sankara Nethralaya, a premier eye care hospital in Chennai and that has served many poor patients!” Suganthan said in his post.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his last respects to Dr Badrinath on the social media platform X: “Deeply saddened by the passing of Dr SS Badrinath ji, a visionary, expert in ophthalmology and founder of Sankara Nethralaya. His contributions to eye care and his relentless service to society have left an indelible mark. His work will continue to inspire generations. Condolences to his family and loved ones. Om Shanti,” Modi said.

Dr V Mohan, Chairman of Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, wrote on X,  “Paying my homage to Dr SS Badrinath one of my heroes in the medical profession and one of the best retinal surgeons and the greatest of human beings I have met.”

More condolences poured in from former vice president of India M Venkaiah Naidu, the Tamil Nadu Raj Bhavan, Governor of Jharkhand CP Radhakrishnan, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, members of the medical fraternity, and the general public.