Review | How Women Doctors in Colonial India Survived a Sexist Medical Profession

Some books are timely, for they bridge our past and present, flowing in a rhythm of storytelling that may often make the reader ponder, empathise, question, brood and finally resonate with the central emotion that the author wants to convey.

This is the crux of the power-packed non-fiction Lady Doctors by journalist and author Kavitha Rao. Written in a simple language, the book tells the story of early women doctors of India who never gave up. These women loved medicine, but also faced many obstacles on their way as medicine was not treated as a coveted profession during the colonial period, not at least for women.

Rao begins by situating the ‘female medic’ in the annals of history. Early in the book, she takes us through an insightful chapter, a kind of a prologue on women in medicine from around the world.

She writes about the ‘first woman doctor’ Merit Ptah, a physician in the Pharoah’s court during the second dynasty of Egypt, in whose name an impact crater on Venus was dedicated. But, Britain’s ‘brusque’ military doctor Dr James Barry – born as Margaret Ann Bulkley – later revealed that Ptah was fictional and didn’t ever exist. Barry was another fascinating character who lived her life as a man. “These days biographers feud over whether Barry was a transgender person and if he should be referred as a man since he apparently identified as one,” Rao writes. She moves on to legendary Elizabeth Blackwell and Sophie Jex-Blake  – founding members of the London School of Medicine (1874) – till she reaches her home turf, India.

By then Rao has prepared her readers for more than a biographical storytelling. One begins to expect a lot of unknown engagements.

The author chooses six women, clubbing them under the title ‘Lady Doctors’ – a rather ironical term, which Rao rightfully describes as ‘outlandish’. Born between 1862 and1886, these women are Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhamabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose. Their sketches are similar yet variant, complex, reflective of their times.

Though Rao believes in the larger picture of society, she is equally attentive to the finer details of her characters’ lives. In her writing, there is no hero-worship, but an in-depth understanding of the context, including the practices of early India. She writes,

“Anandibai’s newfound independence both gladdened and infuriated Gopal Rao. The wife he had groomed since she was nine was now making her own decisions and was much admired by those who surrounded her. It left Gopal Rao feeling powerless and deserted. Anandi Bai would become involved in a constant juggling act to placate him and yet retain her own identity.”

Rao deals with Joshi’s predicament of an overbearing husband sensitively as she does for Haimabati Sen, a Bengali doctor completely forgotten and whose diary Rao describes as “no franker or unvarnished account of a lady doctor’s life that survives from those times”.

The book highlights various aspects of the orthodox Hindu society of colonial India, all that were rooted in patriarchy, casteism and class biases.

While Joshi’s life was a trapeze act of balancing between her own dreams and playing a good wife, Rao depicts how Rukhmabai Raut, as an aspiring medical student from a lower caste, was saddled by a repressive child marriage, making it doubly challenging.

Interestingly, with such clear, unabashed understanding of patriarchal norms of India in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, I was rather mildly surprised when Rao – in the context of Kadamini Ganguly being called whore by Mahesh Chandra Pal, the editor of Bangabasi magazine in 1891 – writes, “But the incident showed how even marriage and a brood of children were no guarantee against sexist abuse”. Patriarchy inherently is oblivious to a woman’s marital status or whether she has given birth to a child or not; it is primarily anti-women.

Though well researched, some chapters, for the lack of primary materials, had to depend on secondary sources like diaries, letters, and so on. For instance, Kadambini Ganguly had not recorded her life much, and contrastingly, Haimabati Sen, the other Bengali doctor, had extensively written diaries. That’s another matter that Sen’s diary lay unnoticed in a family trunk nearly eight years after her death, only to be turned into a biography as recently as early 2020.

Rao admirably builds life sketches of both.

About a third into the book, one has actually had a brilliant replay of the political, cultural history of India, the rise of the nationalist movement, and its overlaps with these women’s lives. We also know that all six women had studied in the presidencies of the British government and each one had an important male character in their lives either in form of husband or father or even a colleague like Kunj Behari Sen’s oppressive Bramho husband or Rukhabai and Mary’s unimaginably supportive father and Sen’s boss and colleague at the hospital on Chinsurah.

And yet we know that these women had daunting challenges which they had to overcome all by themselves. Intriguingly, they were often better understood and appraised for being good wives and mothers, than being fine doctors.

As India becomes more complex with its resurgent conservatism at large, troubling problems when it comes to female education and accessibility, Rao’s lucidly written fascinating testimony of India’s earliest women doctors is a recommended read. The only regret is that Rao only passingly mentions Musamut Idinessa, who practised medicine as the sole doctor at Bidyamayi Female Hospital in Mymensingh district of erstwhile undivided Bengal.

Nevertheless, the book reiterates unflinchingly the struggles of her protagonists to liberate themselves under the ominous ways of life then and complex British colonialism, earning the book a space that it deserves in writing women’s history.

Nilosree Biswas is a published author and filmmaker

Featured image credit: Wikipedia/Amazon; Editing: LiveWire