The Weekly Dose: Trailblazing women in Indian medicine
Dr Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi and Dr Kadambini Ganguly were mavericks who breached the barriers of male-only medicine by qualifying as doctors in 1886, paving the way for thousands of women to follow their footsteps into medical college.
The buzz around Ranveer Singh-starrer Gully Boy has overshadowed a much smaller but equally promising film that released the very next day: Anandi Gopal. This is a Marathi biopic about one of the first Indian women doctors - Dr. Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi. Dr. Kadambini Ganguly and she were mavericks who breached the barriers of male-only medicine by qualifying as doctors in 1886, paving the way for thousands of women to follow their footsteps into medical college. They battled many of the same biases, yet their lives were starkly different.
Dr. Ganguly was born Kadambini Basu in 1862 in Bhagalpur (now in Bihar), to a Bengali headmaster who set up one of India’s first organisations for women’s emancipation. A member of Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj, he was progressive enough to send his 14-year-old daughter to the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya in Calcutta, a young women’s boarding school run by the reformer Dwarkanath Ganguly. Until then, only men were taught mathematics and science, since the powers-that-be ruled that these subjects would ‘overload’ women’s brains; Kadambini was tutored in these subjects and more.
After absorbing this well-rounded education, she was allowed - after fierce lobbying by Dwarkanath - to take the entrance exam for the Bachelor of Arts course in Calcutta University. She cleared it, and four years later, became one of its first two female graduates. With the purdah system still preventing Indian women from seeking professional healthcare (read: approach male doctors), but with an increasing number of women wanting to give birth in a hospital instead of at home, Kadambini decided to become a doctor.
Two thousand kilometres to the west - and nearly three years later - Yamunabai Joshi was born to an upper-caste Chitpavan Brahmin family in Kalyan, near Bombay. Following the norms for women in her community, she never received any schooling and was married off to postmaster Gopalrao Joshi - who changed her name to Anandibai - when she was only nine years old. Fanatic about women’s education, Gopalrao started teaching his child-bride English. When he caught her helping her grandmother in the kitchen when she should have been studying instead, he beat her mercilessly with a bamboo stick. As a 14-year-old teenager, she gave birth to a son, who fell ill; rigid caste lines prohibited a Christian, Western doctor from treating mother and child. Her infant son died.
At a public meeting in Calcutta, Anandibai spoke in English about the dearth of women doctors, and how existing courses in midwifery were inadequate. Knowing that her caste identity forbade her from pursuing medical education in India, she announced: “Ladies - both European and Indian - are naturally averse to exposing themselves in cases of emergency to treatment by doctors of the opposite sex. I go to America to study medicine.”
Kadambini became the first female student of Calcutta Medical College, the first Indian institution to impart training in Western medicine. She was supported by a monthly scholarship of twenty rupees, and all her batch-mates were men. Soon after joining, she scandalised Calcutta society by marrying her former teacher Dwarkanath Ganguly, eighteen years her senior and a widower with six children. She passed all but one of her final exams, allegedly because the professor of that subject was dead set against women entering the corridors of medicine; nevertheless, she was awarded a diploma stating she was a Graduate of the Medical College of Bengal, which allowed her to start private practice.
Anandibai sailed on her own to the United States; upon arriving, she wrote seeking admission to the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia: “[My purpose is] to render to my poor, suffering country-women, the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of, and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician.” She was accepted. In the first semester, she was the only student in her batch - male or female - who was resilient enough to observe the autopsy of an infant until its conclusion. She developed a debilitating cough though, which tormented her for the next three years.
Kadambini wore saris to work, with long-sleeved blouses and a shawl around her shoulders. She drove from patient to patient in a horse-drawn carriage and spent her commute stitching lengths of fine lace. Anandibai - who always wore a nine-yard sari draped the traditional Maharashtrian way - shivered in the freezing American winters; she decided to start wearing her sari Gujarati style, covering up her exposed waist and calves. When she sent her husband Gopalrao a photograph, he wrote back to ask her which strange man (the photographer) was she staring at, and why didn’t her sari properly cover her breasts? By then, she had begun to question his authority: “[Earlier], I had no recourse but to allow you to hit me with chairs, and bear it with equanimity.”
Kadambini’s legend reached even Florence Nightingale, who wrote: “This young lady, Mrs. Ganguly, married after she made up her mind to become a doctor! And has had one, if not two children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in, and did not miss, I believe, a single lecture!” She started practising with the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, for a monthly salary of three hundred rupees. Once, after delivering a child at a rich family’s residence, she was served food on the verandah like a servant and asked to clean the room before she left. Somehow, she also found the time to become the first Indian woman to sit on the dais at a session of the recently formed Indian National Congress, and delivered a vote of thanks. Not one to rest on her laurels, she realised that she was looked down upon by British doctors for not possessing an official medical degree; she sailed to Europe at age thirty to earn licentiates in medicine and surgery from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin.
Anandibai’s cough worsened towards the end of her studies and was diagnosed as tuberculosis. She sailed back to India to assume the post of physician-in-charge of the women’s wards at Kolhapur’s Albert Edward Hospital. But soon after arriving to a heroine’s welcome in Bombay, Dr. Anandibai Joshi died on 26th February 1887 - never having practised in her home country - at the age of 21.
Dr. Kadambini Ganguly practised medicine every day until one evening in October 1923, when she returned home after operating on a critical patient and passed away.
“Apna time aayega (our time will come)”, raps Ranveer Singh’s Gully Boy character. Over one-and-a-half centuries ago, two aspiring women doctors quietly decided: “Apna time aa gayaahai (our time has come)”.