A Man of Three Worlds: Dr. Phil Hansotia

To get to and from work in a remote location in central India, Dr. Phil Hansotia had to cross this river during monsoon season.

Dr. Phil Hansotia is not the first physician to attend patients and to write poetry. Pediatrician-poet William Carlos Williams is well known by students of literature.

In his British prep school in India, young Phiroze Hansotia first experienced British literature, and under the guidance of his Jesuit teachers, he not only developed a love of language, but also received an education that led to a career as a neurologist and neurosurgeon who earned an international reputation.

Since his 2003 retirement from the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, Dr. Hansotia has made his home in Ellison Bay with his wife Marilyn. As a physician he occasionally gives talks explaining medical issues to lay people, and he helps out at a community clinic; as a poet he is a member of the Wallace Group, reading and publishing his work.

He and Danish-born fellow poet Hanne Gault have collaborated on a chapbook (now at the publisher) that explores their immigrant experience. His first book of poetry, Somewhere There, was published the year that he retired.

Hansotia was born on a military base in Deolali to an Indian family with strong connections to Great Britain. His grandfather Sohrab Bhathena, though from a modest family, became a successful, well-traveled doctor.

Dr. Phil Hansotia (left), fresh from medical school, with two fellow doctors who were working for the World Health Organization in Central India.

“To finish his medical training he was sent to Edinburgh,” Hansotia said. After he graduated in 1908, Dr. Bhathena was recruited as a surgeon by the British army for the Boer Wars. During World War I, he served both in North Africa and the Middle East.

“The Colonel wrote letters home of his experience,” Hansotia continued, “and reading them became family occasions.” Stories abounded of his service, and as a favored grandson who was given child-sized military uniforms to wear, Hansotia was fired up.

“I couldn’t imagine anything more interesting than being a doctor who could travel all over the world!” he said.

What appealed most to the boy was not just his grandfather’s travel, but also the people he had met and his ability to “open our family’s eyes,” to broader experiences. Ironically, while the Colonel shared global enlightenment with his family, at the same time, he “was a bigot and almost a fundamentalist when it came to women,” Hansotia recalled.

Hansotia’s future father had received a scholarship to attend the London School of Economics, and later spent a year in Germany with his brother. “He came back to India with views that were the polar opposite of Grandfather’s,” Hansotia said, “and he was a soft-spoken guy. We had lively family gatherings!”

Dr. Phil Hansotia (right) worked summers in college at social service camps like this one where they were helping to build a road.

A marriage had been arranged for Lovji Hansotia and Banu Bhathena, but she rejected her husband to be. “She thought all men were [outspoken] like her father and brothers and expected her husband to be the same,” Hansotia said. “My father said, ‘I accept your decision, but let’s write to each other, and if you change your mind, I’ll marry you.’” She had a change of heart and they were married.

Hansotia grew up speaking three languages (Gujarati, Hindi, and English) and enjoying school. He attended St. Xavier’s, a Jesuit college that required students to work summers in social service camps building schools, roads and other community-based projects.

“We lived in remote areas or city slums, took meals together and sat around campfires,” he said. “Our teachers worked with us and we had the most interesting discussions.

“We had a newsletter,” he continued. “I started as a reporter, and then became an editor, writing about interesting things that happened during the day. Sometimes I’d write an editorial in verse, borrowing shamelessly from Shakespeare and others.” His fellow workers enjoyed his clever allusions and laughed at his parodies.

Phil Hansotia, who currently resides in Ellison Bay, grew up in India. Here, he and his siblings gathered to celebrate their parents Golden Anniversary. (Left to right) Phil’s brother Nash, father Lovji, mother Banu, sister Nina, and Phil.

But in medical school his lifestyle changed; most of his time was filled with studies. He began keeping a diary, sometimes writing poetry in it. Throughout much of his medical career, he continued this practice, eventually filling 15 volumes.

After he had finished his schooling in India, Hansotia’s family expected him to intern in Great Britain, but he told them “new and exciting things are happening in the U.S. I want to learn the best technology there is.” While his parents worried that his time might be wasted, they nonetheless supported his decision.

Hansotia interned at a hospital in Erie, Penn., completed a residency at the University of Cincinnati, and received a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in neurology where he super-specialized in electrophysiology, the study of the brain activity through its electrical output.

From Madison he and his new wife Marilyn (who was a public health nurse) moved to London where he worked at the National Hospital for Neurological Diseases at Queens Square, practicing medicine, teaching, and conducting research.

The irony, he recalled, was that he taught students from all over the Commonwealth, a number who had come from India. While he may not have been the teacher they had anticipated, at the same time he served as a role model for them.

As a result of his work in London, Dr. Hansotia was offered a position that would have taken him to Africa, but when he learned he was to become a father, he “didn’t want to flit about with a baby in tow. I wanted to put down roots so my child would grow up in a stable environment.”

Marilyn and Phil Hansotia who now reside in Ellison Bay.

He chose a position at the Marshfield Clinic where he was given a “blank check” to build the program that became recognized as one of the best. The baby born in London was Eric, now a vice-president with John Deer. Shirene, his younger sister, worked as a policy analyst for the CIA and is now a law student.

During his 35-year career at Marshfield, Hansotia conducted research, published and presented papers, and consulted internationally. He and his students took mission trips to under-served areas outside the U.S., following a model similar to that which he had experienced in college.

Now in his retirement, Hansotia thinks that his Jesuit teachers would be pleased with the work he has done, including his advocacy for healthcare reform. “I argue that medicine is an inherent right,” he said. And he believes in giving back to society.

“Someone was always helpful in what I was doing,” he added, “and I never had a chance to thank people who lent a helping hand, gave a good word, smiled or scolded or nudged – I can do these things as a thank you to society.”

Dr. Phil Hansotia is a man of three worlds: India, Great Britain, and the U.S. But now his world is Ellison Bay, and his life, one of poetry.