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Lady doctors and the rocky path to healing

P Anima | Updated on September 17, 2021

Beating odds: The early Indian women doctors, each a pioneer in her own right, battled different struggles   -  ISTOCK.COM

A handbook on India’s first women doctors holds up a mirror to the social and political realities of the 19th and early 20th century

* Author-journalist Kavitha Rao begins her book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, with a hat tip to the Edinburgh Seven

* The six women, each a pioneer in her own right, walked distinct paths

* If Joshi was celebrated for mindfully toeing the line, her contemporary Rukhmabai Raut was the quintessential ‘rule breaker’

***

In 2019, the University of Edinburgh corrected a historical wrong. Seven women students — collectively known as the Edinburgh Seven — registered to study medicine at the university in 1869, were given their medical degrees 150 years later. The seven, including the pioneering Sophia Jex-Blake, were the first women medical students to be enrolled in any British university. After three years of study and defining achievements, blatant institutional bigotry would put brakes on their academic pursuit. Their study interrupted, five of them would go on to attain their medical degrees outside Britain, while Jex-Blake would start the London School of Medicine for Women.

Author-journalist Kavitha Rao begins her book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, with a hat tip to the Edinburgh Seven, women whose struggles would be mirrored by their counterparts in colonial India. Rao profiles six Indian women who went on to study medicine against great odds; they would face all the challenges encountered by the Edinburgh Seven, and also another — the one imposed by caste. The women came from disparate backgrounds; but Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose were bound together by their dream to be medical doctors. Through their stories and struggles, Rao offers a bird’s-eye view of the socio-political realities as well as the caste dynamics in 19th and early 20th century colonial India. She explores how these factors cohesively worked to restrict women.

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine / Kavitha Rao / Westland / Non-fiction /₹ 499

 

That these six women, each a pioneer in her own right, walked distinct paths is emphasised by Rao. Reddy and Lukose would not be just doctors, but become lawmakers who left indelible imprints on the country’s healthcare system.

Rao begins with Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to be a doctor, in 1886. Joshi is the ‘good wife’, spurred as much by her husband Gopalrao’s ambition as much as her will. She would journey across the dreaded and taboo kaala pani to study at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and acquire her degree, but would die tragically young at 22, before she could practice medicine. Rao dwells at considerable length on Joshi’s identity as a Hindu Brahmin woman, the rituals and rigours to which she religiously clung to while she was in the US. It is a delicate balance that Joshi managed which ensured that despite her path-breaking steps at education, she was not disowned by the tradition-bound Hindu Brahmin society in Maharashtra. Even in the unkindest Pennsylvanian winter, she stuck to wearing traditional Indian attire. Any transgression, however small, would enrage her husband who remote-controlled her life from across the seas. Even a practical decision to swap the nine-yard Maharashtrian sari, which left her legs exposed and vulnerable in the winter, for the Gujarati drape, would anger Gopalrao. The absence of nutritious vegetarian food in the US would also end up taking a toll on Joshi’s health. But “her wifely devotion and adherence to Hindu customs” would endear her to conservative ideologues such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, whose influential newspaper Kesari would pay glowing tributes upon her death.

If Joshi was celebrated for mindfully toeing the line, her contemporary Rukhmabai Raut was the quintessential ‘rule breaker’. Rao, by effectively contrasting the trajectory of Joshi and Raut, offers a commentary on the political and social debates of the time, the enduring tug-of-war between the traditionalists and the liberals. Both Joshi and Raut were child brides, but Raut would go on to fight a lengthy legal battle in court to divorce her husband, before she could pursue medicine. Unlike Joshi, Raut belonged to a historically-oppressed caste, and her decision to live life on her own terms would cleave the conservative Hindu society. If Joshi was the beacon of goodness despite her education, Raut became the testament for all that could go wrong if women were to be educated. She would be a prime target of attack for those like Tilak, who Rao notes, would savagely attack and shame her. Raut would go on to study at Jex-Blake’s London School of Medicine, and importantly, return and serve in Surat as a chief medical officer for 22 years.

Rao also tells the story of Kadambini Ganguly, the first Indian woman to practice as a doctor, the ‘working woman’ who was a medical practitioner, the mother of eight, and caregiver to her elderly husband. Ganguly’s struggles to study at the Calcutta Medical College, which barred women, is reminiscent of those of the Edinburgh Seven. Though Joshi, Raut, Ganguly, Reddy and Lukose were aided by men — fathers and husbands — in their bid to study medicine, an exception in Rao’s book is the plucky Haimabati Sen. Married at nine, widowed at 12, and a life lived in crushing poverty, Sen’s is the most perseverant story in Lady Doctors. Rao painstakingly sketches the social prejudice the women had to fight off; Ganguly, for instance, was called a ‘whore’ for practising medicine by the Bangabasi newspaper, while Sen had to give up her rightfully won gold medal as her male classmates went on strike. Reddy and Lukose expand their zones of struggle when they become lawmakers.

Rao brings together individual, scattered stories, mostly in regional languages, to make a handbook on early Indian women doctors. The challenges thrown by such a research-based exercise are predictable. Sen, thankfully, kept a memoir, and Reddy wrote two. Lukose too kept one, but abandoned writing after her marriage. Raut diligently destroyed her correspondence, while Ganguly is assumed to have been too preoccupied to keep a journal. Joshi’s life is pieced together through her correspondence. As a book structured on multiple sources of research, Lady Doctors, occasionally, fails to make seamless reading. But the sheer strength of the stories, and its powerful protagonists, make it an essential addition to women’s studies in India.

Published on September 14, 2021

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