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The Stories of the Forgotten and Ignored Women of Medicine that are an Inspiration

I just completed reading the book Lady Doctors-The Untold Stories of India's First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao and it made me think how privileged we are to be born in an era where there is no ban on education, where there is no zenana system for girls and we can choose whatever profession we want to. Neither did we have to fight a society full of men and/or even women to fulfil our desire to study nor were we forced to marry at the age of nine or ten to a man four to five times our age. Today women doctors are given their due respect and honour because these forgotten women fought for themselves and in turn fought for other women and made our lives easier.

The book is an awe-inspiring and extensively researched book about six female doctors of the bygone era from the 1860s to 1940s whose stories have mostly been erased from our memories. While the whole nation was fighting for independence along with various social, cultural, educational, and political reforms, these women were fighting their own battles towards emancipation. If they were able to take one step forward, the conservationist and patriarchal society pulled them back by two steps. They faced ostracization by society, sometimes faced domestic abuse, were called out on their character, had to undergo heartrending struggles, and yet displayed immense courage and obstinacy in achieving what they had sought out to achieve.

Anandibai Joshi (from Maharashtra), born on 31st March, 1865, married off at the age of nine to a twenty six year old widower, a victim of domestic abuse, became the first Indian woman to study medicine. However, she could not practice because she died a true Hindu Brahmin at the age of twenty two.

Kadambini Ganguly (from Bihar/Bengal), born in 1862, was the first Indian woman graduate who went on to persuade the Calcutta Medical College to allow women to study medicine, challenged the British prejudice against Indian women doctors and won, and became the superintendent of Lady Dufferin Hospital. She was a mother of eight children, caretaker of an elderly husband, lover of embroidery- a working woman in every sense and yet called a 'whore' by the conservative 'Bangabasi' paper.

Rukhmabai Raut (from Maharashtra), born in 1864, a Hindu woman of oppressed caste, was the first Hindu woman to leave her husband and seek a divorce and stay unmarried for the rest of her life. She would savagely criticize child marriage, face severe criticism and ostracization even from reformers like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, would be instrumental in introducing the Age of Consent Act, would work tirelessly as a doctor and for women's rights thus leaving behind a remarkable legacy of defiance.

Haimabati Sen (from Bengal), born in 1866, was married at nine to a forty five year old abusive husband, widowed at twelve and abandoned by her own family. Her's was a lonely struggle as she remarried, educated herself, received a gold medal for her performance in studies yet had to forgo the same because of the male ego being jealous and hurt, faced sexual harassment at her workplace, worked as a doctor for over 40 years and earned for herself, her family, and orphaned children.

Muthulakshmi Reddy (from Tamil Nadu), born in 1886, would fight for her education, would fight to abolish child marriage, would become a legislator, would fight to abolish the 'devadasi' system, would go on to open a home for the destitute girls, orphans and devadasi girls, would open a cancer hospital; and in doing all these would leave behind a legacy of what women could achieve if they put their minds into it.

Mary Poonen Lukose (from Kerala), became the first woman from Travancore to get a University degree, became the first woman legislator of India in 1924, became the first surgeon general in India (probably also in the world) and would build Kerala's formidable public healthcare system.

Though the struggles and stories of these women are of a different era, modern women can still relate to some of them even today. These women in medicine brought radical changes at a time when it was unimaginable, thus paving the way or making the path relatively easier for women who chose to take up the medical profession later.


What inspiring book have you read recently? Would love to hear from you..

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