Winter is the season of Doctor’s conferences in my city, when super specialists of many branches of medicine meet to discuss professional research and new developments. Among these are many women who are working shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. It is difficult to imagine that just over 150 years ago, a woman doctor was unheard and undreamt of. This reminder was strongly communicated in a recent performance that traced the life of India’s first female doctor–Anandibai Joshi.
Anandibai Joshi is known to be the first woman of Indian origin to graduate with a degree in medicine in the US. Her story of grit and determination is an inspiration, and a trailblazer.
Born in 1865 as Yamuna, the third unwanted daughter, she was married off at the age of nine to a widower postal clerk 20 years her senior. Her husband Gopalrao took charge of her life by first changing her name to Anandi; but also encouraged her to study, which was unusual for that time. Anandi was a bright and curious girl-child, balancing between her innocence, her thirst for learning and her expected chores and role as ‘wife’. She became a mother at the age of 14, but lost her 10-day old child due to lack of medical care and facilities. Traumatised by this event, she began to dream the undreamable– to become a doctor so that she can help other women like herself. In a time when a girl going to school was spat at, and looked upon with intense disapproval, Anandi was supported to some extent by her husband.
Even more unusual is the story of how she reached America. A letter written by Gopalrao to an American missionary asking if Anandi could study medicine in America, was published in some American magazines, where a woman called Theodicia Carpenter read it and wrote to the young girl with an offer of a home and support if she were to go to New York. Against opposition from all quarters in India, Anandi embarked upon this journey into the unknown, reaching New York after an arduous two-month ship voyage. Once she reached, with support from her mentor Theodicia, Anandi Gopal Joshi applied to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was granted admission at the age of 19. Medical school and life in an alien land was extremely difficult; but Anandi met the challenges head on—the extreme cold weather (she changed her attire from the traditional nine-yard sari to the six-yard one), the food (at one point she became so nutritionally deficient she had to start eating eggs), very poor health, loneliness, hostile classmates and neighbours, and nasty letters from her suspicious husband. Anandi persevered towards her goal and got through medical school, graduating in 1886. She returned to India the same year and was appointed as the physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital in the then princely state of Kohlapur (in present day Maharashtra).
Tragically, before she could finally make her childhood dream come true, by practising as a doctor, Dr Anandi Joshi died of TB in 1887, just over a month before her 22nd birthday. As per her wish, her ashes were sent to Theodicia Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The true-grit story of Yamuna/Anandi was brought to life in a solo performance by Manasi Prabhakar Joshi. Titled Dr Anandibai this powerfully transposed the story of the path breaker in the context of the challenges that women face even today—reminding us that while on the one hand much has changed, on the other, much remains the same. Anandibai’s story continues to remain an inspiration and a beacon.