In 2017, journalist and writer Kavitha Rao, currently based in London, was struck by a Google Doodle celebrating the life and work of Rukhmabai Raut (1864-1955), one of India’s foremost but forgotten women doctors. “I wondered why I had never heard of her,” Rao says on email. As she began digging, she encountered several “other ‘lady doctors’”, each with their fascinating story. Around that time, she also read Angela Saini’s best-selling book, Inferior, which explores the systematic exclusion of women from science. The same pattern, Rao noted, seemed to have played out historically in the lives of many brilliant women from the subcontinent.
Four years on, Rao has just published her own riveting book on the trials, tribulations and triumphs of modern India’s first women physicians. The title, Lady Doctors, may have a coyly anachronistic ring but the epithet is still in vogue (a search for “lady doctor” online will direct you to the nearest women physicians).
The continued usage of the term is most likely a testimony to the enduring patriarchal control over women’s access to public healthcare but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the period Rao looks at, “lady doctor” was a pejorative. It was burdened with stigma, making the male bastion in the medical sciences (and much beyond it too) quiver with rage and label such women as “whores”.
Such was the fate of Kadambini Ganguly (1861-1923), who, apart from being one of the most distinguished physicians from Bengal, was an exemplary working mother to eight children and a devoted wife to Dwarkanath Ganguly, a staunch supporter of her career. But class privilege, genteel upbringing, stellar academic record and, most of all, her husband’s unstinting backing didn’t protect her from the ire of the mob, largely male but with its fair share of women, who shuddered at the thought of one of their kind daring to step over the threshold of the domestic sphere to work alongside men—and, worse still, stooping so low as to accept a salary for their service! Even Lady Dufferin’s generous fund, which made it possible for Kadambini to be employed at an Indian hospital, was plagued by racism that was endemic to colonial India.
“I had always thought of the Dufferin fund as a wonderful initiative so it was a revelation that it was not always wonderful for Indian women doctors, who were paid much less than the Europeans,” says Rao. In the only letter of Kadambini’s that she found, Rao read of her bitter complaint about the discrimination faced by Indian women doctors, both in terms of pay and status (trained obstetricians were often paid even less than midwives who helped deliver babies), in spite of having comparable, often superior, qualifications to their foreign counterparts. Even Florence Nightingale, whose fame as a nurse travelled far and wide, was singularly condescending towards women who became doctors, judging them to be invariably inferior to their male colleagues.
Other forms of injustice were rife too. One of the early path-breakers among “lady doctors”, Anandibai Joshi (1865-87), who was beaten by her husband Gopalrao (a man who had his own twisted motive for educating his wife) for not studying, was ridiculed by Western reformers, such as the American feminist Caroline Healey Dall, who, Rao says, “seemed to think that the only good lady doctor was a Christian doctor”. “I was also struck by the way Anandibai had to put on an act of gratitude and admiration for Western missionaries, but inwardly, as seen in her letters, she was seething at their condescension.”
Such behaviour may seem like double standards but for women like Joshi , it was probably a canny strategy to preserve their own self-interest. Although she crossed the oceans to travel to the US on her own at a time such an act was unthinkable for upper-caste Hindu married women, Joshi was scrupulous about not straying from her conservative attire and diet. She modified the style in which she wore her sari, much to Gopalrao’s vexation, to protect herself from the freezing temperatures on the east coast, but refused to touch meat, even when she was grievously ill and was advised bone broth to regain her health.
In contrast, the lower-caste Raut and Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968), who came from a devadasi background and went on to found the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, had to fight back far more brazenly, defying conventions with impunity. Raut, for instance, had to face off with a formidable foe in the much revered freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, whose quest for swaraj (self-rule for Indians), Rao archly notes, clearly didn’t extend to women, especially those from the lower castes.
Haimabati Sen (1866-1933), though born into an upper-class family, had a hard life too. Married at the age of nine to a widower of 45, she describes in her memoirs (forgotten in a trunk for nearly 80 years after her death, until the manuscript was retrieved and translated into English by the historian Tapan Raychaudhuri) the horrors of enforced sex inflicted on pre-pubescent girls. Widowed early, Sen remarried, when it was taboo to do so, though the Brahmo Samaj was trying to usher in a wave of change. However, her second husband, though he didn’t object to her studies and career, conveniently took off for the Himalaya whenever the burden of looking after the growing family became palpable. For all of Sen’s life, the family depended on her income as a doctor to subsist.
“Haimabati’s memoir really speaks to me because her preoccupations were so human and, indeed, quite narrow, in the way she worries about how to save money for rice, how to deal with her husband, to cope with her children, and so on,” Rao says. “The passage where she gave up her gold medal (the men in her class couldn’t brook a woman topper and threw an unholy tantrum, some even planning to kill her) to get more money for her new-born baby may be the most moving I have ever read in an Indian memoir.”
Rao’s book ends with the story of Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1976), who was appointed the first woman surgeon general in the world by Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the famous queen of Kerala’s Travancore state. But apart from the stories of the six feisty “lady doctors”, Rao mentions several pioneering figures in other fields, such as the Sanskrit scholar Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) and Abala Bose née Das (1865-1951), wife of the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who studied medicine but did not end up practising professionally.
While chronicling the incredible lives of the women doctors, Rao’s book captures the chiaroscuro in which her characters dwelt. While each of them was a pioneer in their own right, not all were feminists, as we think of the term now. Joshi, for instance, behaved with the propriety and orthodoxy expected of women of her caste and class, disapproving of women, like her cousin Ramabai, who refused to abide by the decorum imposed on her by patriarchal society.
Likewise, the support of the men in the lives of these women doctors—crucial for their success—often came at the cost of vested interests and blind spots. Joshi’s husband Gopalrao, for instance, was far more interested in drawing attention to himself than to the merit of his wife. Even though he let her pursue her medical training in the US, he made her life miserable once he managed to join her on the foreign shores, and continued to behave like a sworn eccentric long after the premature death of his talented wife.
Apart from recovering the legacies of the women doctors from public amnesia, Lady Doctors can also be read as an invitation to reflect on the hegemonies of feminism—inflected by class, caste, race and nationalities—that continue to plague our world view to this day.