Sylvain Savolainen

Reporter / Photographer


Jack Preger: Spartacus in Calcutta

Be it natural catastrophes or wars, international awareness and aid follow the same pattern as globalization: they are immediate and versatile. Cameras bobbing, frenzied activity all over and forgotten in no time at all, journalists scrambling for breaking news: from one magazine cover to the next, the pictures are archived, and the refugees in the tents are forgotten.

For the past 30 years, in Calcutta, one man has confronted human misery on a daily basis. Dr Jack Preger and his organization, Calcutta Rescue, set up streets hospitals, cure and feed the needy, the destitute suffering from TB in shanty towns, the malnourished, the lepers and other victims of poverty.

After reading philosophy, political science and economics at Oxford, Jack Preger took on a farm for several years and decided aged 34 to study medicine and to devote himself to developing countries.

Aged 42, the son of a London suburban grocer becomes a doctor. In the beginning of the 70s, Bangladesh is torn apart by war and famine. After hearing a call on the radio for medical doctors to volunteer, Jack Preger embarks on what will become his destiny. “When I first set foot in Bangladesh, I had never been to a third world country before. I had never seen refugee camps like those I have seen over there, where men fought against dogs over food, where corpses are piled up along the river banks and in the railway station’s public toilets. I arrived in August and took care of men who had been injured in March and whose wounds had just been rotting off for months. These are the kinds of things that stay with you. What I saw has mulled inside me. This is how one learns, at a young age, lessons that guide you in your life and work until old age and death.”

Dr Preger spent seven years doing humanitarian work in Bangladesh’s camps, until he was expelled for exposing a racket in adoption involving Bangladesh officials and members of a major European NGO. Dr Preger was told he had five days to pack his bags and leave.

Jack Preger then crossed the border to the Indian side of Bengal and went to Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal. “I followed the Bangladeshis to Calcutta because I knew poverty drove them towards the megalopolis”.

The doctor went back to work. The number of his patients increased. With passing years, helped by volunteers from all around the world and by local staff, Dr Jack Preger built what has become one of the most important NGOs of Calcutta.