“There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears”: The price that India’s first women doctors paid to break barriers

08 July 2021
Mita Roy / Courtesy Kavitha Rao
Mita Roy / Courtesy Kavitha Rao

In her new book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, the journalist and writer Kavitha Rao profiles six of the first women in India who defied social conventions in order to study medicine. All six women were born in the late nineteenth century. They are Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose.

Joshi was the first Indian woman to study medicine and study abroad but died young, before she could actually practise as a doctor. Ganguly persuaded the Calcutta Medical College to admit her, worked at a hospital and then had a private practice. Raut sought divorce from a man she was married to as a child, found a vitriolic enemy in the nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak, studied medicine in the United Kingdom and worked as a doctor in Mumbai and Surat. Sen was raised as a boy, married and widowed as a child. She was given the silver medal instead of the gold for coming first in her class (after the boys in her class protested), and went on to work as a hospital assistant and then a doctor. Reddy studied medicine at the Madras Medical College, became a surgeon, studied cancer and went on to found the Cancer Institute in Adyar. Poonen Lukose, who studied in London and was appointed surgeon general of the state of Travancore.

In this interview, Nayantara Narayanan, the health editor at The Caravan, spoke to Rao about the importance of telling these stories and how these women doctors navigated barriers, including those of gender, caste and class, after entering the field of medicine.

Nayantara Narayanan: In the book’s introduction you say that we barely remember these women, if we haven’t erased them entirely from public memory, and that this lapse of memory has consequences. What are those consequences? Is reinstating them in our collective memory the purpose of this book?

Kavitha Rao: Pan-India, there is very little memory of them, because so much of what was written about them, or what they wrote, was in regional languages like Marathi and Bangla and that is not accessible to everybody. Anandibai may have gotten more press than most because she was first [to go abroad and to medical school] and there were some movies made about her and some biographies written about her. But I think so many of the others have just been forgotten, or we know two lines about them.

Nayantara Narayanan is the Public Health Editorial Fellow with The Caravan

Keywords: medicine doctors women healthcare caste science
COMMENT