Dr. Jack Preger

The Pavement Doctor of Calcutta

(Note: The creator of this web site has known the doctor for over 30 years, and previously worked at Middleton Row clinic. Site is currently under revision - please excuse any errors! Best viewed on a laptop or tablet

Dr. Jack Preger

Jack Preger, M.B.E. was born in Manchester, England on 25 July 1930. His story is astonishing, yet it is relatively unknown, as he has eschewed publicity for most of his life.

One day in 1965, as a 35-year-old farmer driving his tractor spreading manure on a remote cliffside in Wales, he suddenly felt 'compelled' to become a medical doctor, as if: “his head had opened and closed” and left the instruction permanently in place. This extraordinary out-of-the-blue 'command' was as outrageous as it was illogical. He had no interest in medicine, far less in becoming a doctor. It would mean selling his farm in a depressed property market, and somehow finding a place in medical school. It would turn his life upside down.

He however found no way of resisting this order. It's a long story, but after overcoming innumerable obstacles, he was subsequently enrolled as a mature student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland. Seven years later, in 1972, “Dr. Jack” completed his internship, now aged 42, and answered an appeal for doctors to help with the refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

There, he not only witnessed unimaginable human suffering, he also discovered and exposed a child-trafficking operation implicating people in authority. The whistle-blowing had him arrested and deported in 1979. The Dhaka clinic he had set up for mothers and babies in 1975 was closed down. The patients were thrown out on the street. Some died as a result. Jack, now aged 91, continues fighting for victims of the illegal adoptions which took place there.

Jack subsequently moved to Calcutta (now renamed Kolkata) to work for Mother Teresa, but soon discovered that hands-on medicine and fervent religious devotion are not compatible. Since he had 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 located in a side street called Middleton Row, off busy Park street, in the city centre. Here, he proceeded to build a dismountable but functional clinic - on the pavement. This was not, as one might imagine, a first aid post treating minor injuries. It was a fully fledged street side medical centre handling a full spectrum of illness and disease, including cancer, TB, malaria, cardiac conditions, HIV, and all else. Minor done surgery on site, major surgery outsourced to hospitals, together with X-Rays, lab tests, physiotherapy, etc.

The clinic stretched along the outer wall of the Presbytery.

In order to fully grasp this extraordinary concept, you must first imagine a medical clinic handling hundreds of patients in a developed country. Visualise the essentials: a building, a medical team, nurses, an examination room, a treatment room, equipment, medicines, and medical records. Now, transport these basics to the side of the road in India, but with no building, working at the roadside with traffic passing by, in a chaotic, polluted city of over 4 million people.

Jack’s unlikely clinic stretched for about 50-70 metres along the pavement comprising several sections; injury and burn treatments & dressings, a central 'consultation centre' for other conditions where Jack sat, medical records, pharmacy, dispensary and a 'welfare department' which distributed food, clothing, and small amounts of money to pay for transportation - many patients travelled miles to reach the clinic. The examination ‘room' was a bed sheet held up by hand to provide a measure of privacy.

The ragged structure blocked a pavement and was clearly illegal. Jack additionally had no licence to practice medicine and hire staff in India, much less conduct minor surgery, administer first aid, give injections, diagnose illnesses and dispense drugs working from the side of the road with traffic passing by.

The Middleton Row clinic treated stretched forward from here round the corner, where the pharmacy and welfare sections were located.

Those who witnessed this extraordinary creation were lost for words. It beggared belief. One would expect the authorities to close such an operation within a day. That, somehow, didn’t happen. Perhaps it had something to do with the Presbytery’s presence (or even a higher Authority!) and if the whole concept was already beyond all credibility in 1979, nobody could have possibly believed that this would operate for the next fourteen years, from 1979 until 1993.

The clinic treated as many as 500 patients a day, operating six days a week for fourteen years. When numbers eventually exceeded resources, Jack opened a second clinic on the river bank at Nimtala Ghat which eventually had to close due to Mafia pressure. There is however an established Calcutta Rescue clinic operating at that location today, one of four in the city.

Jack's consultation 'centre' Medical records 'department' adjoined this, with patients' files stored in metal boxes. Medical examinations of a personal nature were conducted behind sheets of cloth.

Local doctors assisted Jack for small amounts, often for free. Overland backpackers stopped travelling,
often for months, to help. Many were British nurses. The large metal boxes stored medical records.

During this time, he was threatened by street Mafia groups demanding protection money, and harassed by local authorities regarding his residential visa and immigration status, which at one stage had him imprisoned in Alipore Jail. His case dragged on for years until he was finally successful in registering Calcutta Rescue as an official body, whose vital work carries on to this day. A description of its operations follows on the next page.

The Medical Records Department

Many patients were treated for leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease

During the Middleton Row years, Jack received numerous visits from medical doctors intrigued by what he was doing. Many stopped to help out, others sent much-needed medical supplies and surgical instruments when they got home. One of these was Dr. Jim Withers from Pittsburgh, in the United States. Withers was deeply impressed by the concept, and on his return to the US, he pioneered his own version of street medicine catering to the homeless people in his own city. The nucleus of this expanded to give birth to the Street Medicine Institute, which now operates in 15 countries and many major cities around the world -- thanks to Jack Preger's example.

I've met many people who've faced opposition in their efforts to help others, but no one who's been as systematically harassed as Jack Preger. Fortunately he's really tough – truly a soldier for the good"

-Ashok Mahadevan
Editor of Reader's Digest, India


Jack was named "Philanthropist of the Year" at the 2017 Asian Awards here