Few have heard of Dr Jack Preger. That’s probably because he is an inconspicuous, modest person. Yet since leaving farming to become a medical doctor relatively late in life, at the age of 42, he has offered medical treatment free of charge to hundreds of thousands of poor people in Kolkata, India. It all started in an open-air clinic on the side of a busy street. Six days a week, hundreds stood in line to see the British doctor.
Straight out of medical school, in 1972 Dr Preger went to Bangladesh to help treat the millions of migrants fleeing persecution as a result of the war of liberation. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, in 1975 he set up a clinic for mothers and children. Exposing a child-trafficking operation involving high-level authorities, he was arrested and deported in 1979, and his clinic was shut down.
So Dr Preger moved to India, and worked a while for Mother Teresa in Kolkata. Because he “discovered that hands-on medicine and fervent religious devotion are not compatible”, he started treating people in the streets, but this proved difficult as he and his patients were often hassled by the police to move on. He had no license to practise in India.
All the same he set up a consulting “practice” on the pavement near St Thomas Presbytery in Kolkata. There he operated for 14 years. A new movement was born: street medicine.
Due to his illegal status in India, for years Dr Preger fought for the right to treat his patients at his clinic. Finally in 1991 he succeeded in registering relief agency Calcutta Rescue as an official non-governmental organization. Today it is still “serving the most socially and economically disadvantaged people of the region – regardless of gender, age, caste or religion”.
Its mission: “Calcutta Rescue provides all services free of cost to the neediest people of Kolkata and rural West Bengal through health clinics, schools, vocational training and preventive health programmes. We aim to improve levels of health, education and earning opportunities for current and new service users.”
Today, Calcutta Rescue operates four clinics. As Dr Preger says: “Better to light one candle than to sit in the dark. Be positive.”
The world will soon learn more about “Dr Jack”. A documentary film about his life and work has just been released. Here is the trailer for the film on this truly inspiring person.