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Pratibha Singhi (1951- )

When she finished her pediatric training at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Pratibha Singhi knew how she could improve the lives of children in India. “The three biggest issues were neurodevelopmental disorders, CNS infections, and epilepsy,” she says. Singhi - who had always been at the very top of her classes, excelling in every subject on her path to becoming a doctor – would simply have to become an expert in all three.

Singhi was born in 1951 in Ajmer, a small, quiet town in India, where her father was a physician. Her mother, a teacher, encouraged her to be independent and to help others. She graduated from the JLN (Jawaharlal Nehru) Medical College in Ajmer, India, in 1973. At JLN she enjoyed the challenge of adult medicine – but appreciated the resiliency she saw in children.

Prior to the 1940s, neurologists in India traveled abroad for specialized medical training. The first neurosurgical department was established in 1948, followed slowly by other departments of neurology, neurosciences and neurosurgery.

When Singhi graduated in the 1970s, adult neurology was growing into an established field, but pediatric neurology didn’t exist yet. The disability rights movement, developing in Western countries since the 1950s, was barely brewing in India. Children with disabilities or epilepsy were cared for by adult neurologists – or, most often, no specialist at all.

In 1983 Singhi joined the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh, and began developing a neurology and neurodevelopmental program for children. With her mentor, B. N. S. Walia (a pediatrician, former director, and now emeritus professor of the Advanced Pediatric Center of PGIMER) she founded PRAYAAS: the Rehabilitation Centre for Handicapped Children. From a humble start in 1985, PRAYAAS has become a huge multidisciplinary center serving children with cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders. 

The need for neurology and neurodevelopmental care for children was overwhelming. To learn how well-established pediatric neurology and pediatric neurodevelopmental teams functioned, Singhi traveled extensively. She had trained in California and worked in Jamaica; now she trained and worked at Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, the Royal College for Sick Children in Edinburgh, and the Royal Victoria Infirmary, building her knowledge through hands-on work. 

Back in India, she began to study infectious neurological diseases in children – primarily focusing on neurocysticercosis, but also the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial and fungal infections in the central nervous system. She collaborated with neurologists across the globe, and published studies of neurological infections, epilepsy and neurodevelopmental disorders. She has received many awards in recognition of her work, including the Frank Ford Award for lifetime scientific achievement and her contributions to child neurology and to the International Child Neurology Association.

Along the way, Singhi balanced work and science with family. She describes sitting with her daughter at the table: one reading EEGs, the other doing homework. Samata followed in her mother’s impressive footsteps, completing a residency in pediatric neurology and fellowship in epilepsy at the Boston Children's Hospital and subsequently directing the pediatric epilepsy monitoring unit at Johns Hopkins. She is currently pursuing an industry career at BioGen.  

In 2016, Singhi retired from her role as head of the pediatrics department and chief of pediatric neurology and neurodevelopment at the Advanced Pediatrics Centre at PGIMER Chandigarh. After retirement, she worked as the director of pediatric neurology and neurodevelopment at Medanta Hospital in Delhi, India. Singhi is now President-Elect of the International Child Neurology Association (ICNA) – leading the next generation of international pediatric neurologists.

Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD