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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Too Bright: Dr Anandibai Joshee, India’s First Woman Medical Doctor

At 9 years old, a girl named Yamuna Joshee was married to her tutor, a man twenty years her senior, who thereupon changed her first name to Anandibai.

At 14, she gave birth to, and lost, her only child.

At 21, she became the world’s first Indian woman to receive a medical degree.

Less than a year later, she was dead.

There is nothing small in the tale of Dr Joshee (1865–1877), a woman who planted herself squarely against the prejudices of two civilisations in pursuit of her country’s good. Mocked in the streets of India for her dedication to medical study, she came to America only to find her Hindu customs and culture the object of smug, if well-meaning, drawing-room condescension. She battled cultural inertia, bureaucratic torpor and religious prejudice all while simultaneously fighting against the consumption that would ultimately take her life, finding time somewhere in the middle of all that to study and practise medicine.

She had been marked for greatness almost since she could talk. While a young girl, she had a dream about a man in curious armour who told her that she was meant to walk in his footsteps. After telling her father about her dream, he took her to the family’s sacred records of ancestry, which she had never seen before, and asked if anybody looked familiar. Page after page went by, going deeper and deeper into the past, until finally the girl recognised the man from her dreams: the heroic founder of the family line. Taking Yamuna’s dream as a direct communication from their ancestor, her father resolved to provide her with anything she needed to achieve her destiny.

A major component of that support came in the form of education. A distant relation by the name of Gopal Joshee was engaged to teach her Sanskrit and whatever else he happened to know. He was a widower, some twenty years her senior, and, when it came time for him to leave to take up a postmaster position elsewhere, she was disconsolate over the loss of her teacher. It was decided the best thing to do would be for the two to get married so that she could travel with him to his new post. She was 8 years old, and the marriage ceremony was carried out on her ninth birthday. As was tradition, the groom gave his bride a new name – no longer Yamuna, the child bride was now Anandibai, which translates as ‘Joy of My Heart’.

She was intelligent and industrious, qualities which brought on the mockery of the more conservative elements of late nineteenth-century Indian society. The girl who was used to an intellectually supportive environment found herself insulted in the streets for failing in her duties as a high-caste Indian wife:

Once it happened that I was obliged to stay in school for some time, and go twice a day for my meals to the house of a relation. Passers-by, whenever they saw me going, gathered round me. Some of them made fun, and were convulsed with laughter. Others, sitting respectably in their verandahs, made ridiculous remarks, and did not feel ashamed to throw pebbles at me. The shopkeepers and vendors spit at the sight of me, and made gestures too indecent to describe.

In spite of the mockery and abuse, she remained committed to her path of the mind, one which achieved new focus when she lost her first and only child shortly after birth. She was convinced that what her country most desperately needed was women in the medical profession, trained in the newest advances of Western medicine. She would go to America, learn all she could, and then bring that knowledge back to India to train more doctors and thereby raise the standard of women’s health in her country.

No sooner did she announce her intention than protests arose from all sides. Traditional elements of Indian society declared that, left alone in America, she would betray her traditions and beliefs. Christian missionary societies that could have eased her way to America balked when she said she would not convert to Christianity. To answer her detractors, she took the unprecedented step of announcing a public speech in which she would lay out what she intended to do, and why she desired to do it.

On 24 February 1883, a 17-year-old Indian girl stood up before her elders in a packed hall of sceptics and plain gawkers, and declared the contents of her mind and heart:

You ask of me, why I should do what is not done by any of my sex? To this I can only say, that society has a right to our work as individuals.

It is very difficult to decide the duties of individuals. It is enough that the good of one must be the good of all. If anything seems best for all mankind, each one of us must try to bring it about. So I am surprised to hear that I should not do this, because it has not been done by others. Our ancestors whose names have become immortal had no such notions in their heads … To desist from duty because we fear failure or suffering is not just. We must try. Never mind whether we are victors or victims. Manu has divided people into three classes. The meanest are those who never attempt anything for fear of failure. Those who begin, and are disheartened by the first obstacles, come next; but those who begin, and persevere through failure and obstacle, are those who win.

The confidence and wisdom of her speech were applauded, and it was widely published in the papers, attracting sponsors and well-wishers who ultimately smoothed her road to America. On 7 April she was on her way, the first unconverted high-caste Indian woman to leave India. Her destination was the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia, where she would have to squeeze her studies in between the duties of being An Attraction for the high society set.

An Indian student in America, she wore traditional clothing, ate only vegetarian fare, and maintained her religious and cultural practices, all of which was irresistible to a dinner party circuit seeking distraction amidst comfort. She was invited to parties, asked to sing her ‘quaint’ native songs, quizzed a hundred times over about her clothes, and treated to the sights and sounds of society matrons who considered her nose jewellery ‘savage’ but who enjoyed being Big Enough to overlook it in deference to her character. As her only significant English language biographer, Caroline Healey Dall, who was herself of the dinner party set, managed to say, ‘The longer Anandibai lived in America the less she liked to wear her ornaments, or rather those ornaments which, like the ear-rings and the nose-ring, recalled a savage condition of society. [But] when she wore them, they did not offend me.’

According to Dall, Anandibai was quite happy to perform for her American hosts, cooking traditional meals for them, singing on demand, and wrapping them in exotic saris for soirees. How she actually felt, we cannot say, for the same blindness to her own cultural condescension that marks Dall’s more unfortunate comments about the ‘Hindu character’ could well have prevented her from accurately seeing her class’s attentions as sources of continuous embarrassment or imposition.

The true enemy, however, during Anandibai’s three years in America, was not the often smug but consistently supportive superiority of her hosts, but her own body. She had suffered from headaches since her mid-teens, and came down with diphtheria on at least one occasion, but as her American sojourn lengthened, she noticed the headaches getting worse, followed by an ominous cough and shortness of breath that heralded the arrival of tuberculosis. The progress of the disease was not helped by her friends, who insisted that strenuous trips to different parts of the country were just the thing she needed to recover. Too polite to decline these offers, Anandibai wore herself out on these trips and parties, but managed to graduate at last in 1886. Shortly thereafter, she won an appointment as the physician-in-charge at the Female Ward of Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur, India.

India’s first licensed woman doctor, lauded on three different continents for her success, had her dream in her grasp – an opportunity to apply her new knowledge in her home country. But it was not to be. After a rough passage back to India, during which her husband broke fundamental caste restrictions by attending on her day and night as her nurse, Anandibai was welcomed with acclaim and pride by the same people who had vilified her only four years earlier. In spite of the rapid deterioration of her condition, she insisted on returning to her home town, to visit once again the sites of her childhood. Her uncle put her up in the house where she was born, feeling a premonition that it would also be the house where she passed. On 26 February 1887, Anandibai Joshee died, not yet 22 years old, never having had the chance to put the skills she had worked so hard to acquire at the service of the people she hoped to save.

Her last words were, ‘I have done all that I could.’ And she had.


Until recently the only real source of substance we have in English for Anandibai Joshee is Dall’s 1888 biography, The Life of Dr Anandibai Joshee, A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai. She spends more time talking about Anandibai’s clothes and society impressions than she does about her actual medical work, accuses Gopal of gross ingratitude whenever he speaks out against Imperial treatment of India, and drops lines every so often like, ‘It is not learning, intellect, subtlety, or imagination that is wanting in the average Hindu; it is purity, faith and honesty.’ To read her book is to see Anandibai through the gauze of a prejudice that is doubly dangerous in that it thinks itself enlightened, and so you come away with some general outlines, but never feel as though you have touched the real person. Luckily, now we have Nandini Patwardhan's Radical Spirits: India's First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions (2020) which will be the go-to for years to come.

Joshee's story is also one of 140 stories of women in Medicine I told in A History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available on Amazon and from Pen and Sword books US or UK!


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