Book Review | Clear-eyed and engrossing look back at six Indian medical pioneers

Should the world cancel Ishwarchandra Gupta (1812-1859), the poet who disparaged the Bengali renaissance woman for potentially leading to the “sight of (them) driving their own carriages to Calcutta Maidan, for to take the air”, and thus punish him posthumously on account of dispensing to her the perverse advice to stay home?

Inadvisable; not only is a man a product of his circumstance, but even while our history books are being sought to be rewritten, embellished and sanitised, such denial by a putatively liberal but in essence pro-Establishment copycat cancel culture has been proved to be an equally powerful bane, threatening the legacies of our heroes with erasure.

To her credit, Kavitha Rao’s Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine steers clear of such predilections. Drawn from the women’s own letters and memoirs, her six portraits of the spunky pioneers — Anandibai Joshi (graduated from Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, USA, 1886) Kadambini Ganguly (Calcutta Medical College, 1888), Haimabati Sen (Campbell Medical College, 1894), Rukhmabai Raut (London School of Medicine for Women, 1895), Muthulakshmi Reddy (Madras Medical College, 1894), Mary Poonen Lukose (London School of Medicine for Women, 1915) — are well-rounded. Joshi’s photograph adorns the cover of the volume.

The release of the book is perfectly timed to coincide with the month of the birth anniversary of Ganguly (July 18), the first female doctor to practise in India, and the International Doctors Day (July 1). Along with Chandramukhi Bose, Ganguly, a “working mom” of eight, was also India’s first female (Bethune College, arts) graduate.

The first aspect of this work that draws critical attention is the comprehensive sweep of Rao’s research. This, in addition to the author’s crisp world-building, transports the reader into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ India’s in the space of a few words. Aside from the odd reference to Ishwarchandra Gupta, an eclectic array of characters emerge — from the mythical Agnodice to first Indian allopath Madhusudan Gupta (graduated from Calcutta Medical College, 1840) who faced flak for breaking the taboo of touching corpses, from Brahmo patriarch and Rabindranath Tagore’s father Debendranath Tagore, and fiery social reformer Pandita Ramabai, to the last devdasi Nagarathnamma who put up a doughty fight against Muthulakshmi’s ultimately successful bid to abolish her profession, from Mary Lukose’s quirky mountaineer doctor friend, Theodore Somervell, to the iconic oncologist, V. Shanta, who recently passed on at the age of 94, still chairperson of Muthulakshmi’s Adyar Cancer Institute and who contributed to the research for this book.

At least two of these six doctors (Joshi, Sen) became interested in medical studies after experiencing childbirth, two of them (again Joshi, Sen) found in Debendranath Tagore a benefactor, two of them (Ganguly, Sen) were denied by male chauvinistic academia (Ganguly was failed by one mark and Sen forced to give up her gold medal) and two of their biographies are linked to the 1891 Age of Consent Act triggered by 10-year-old Phulmoni Dasi’s rape leading to her death (as the first Hindu divorcee, Rukhmabai Raut’s letters to the editor is said to have helped bring about the law). Watching their journeys, the reader comes to realise how many of our idols — both national and international — had clay feet — Bal Gangadhar Tilak opposed higher education for women, the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and the world’s first female nurse Florence Nightingale were against women becoming doctors, India’s first female lawyer Cornelia Sorabjee frivolously badmouthed Raut behind her back.

To gain a perspective on the status of women’s rights today, it is important to consult history — and here two points appear worthy of note. First, contrary to popular misperception, women are not too far behind men (the first medical degrees were awarded by the Schola Medica Salernitana around the year 1000, including to women such as Trota of Salerno), and Indian women their western counterparts (the first female doctor Elizabeth Blackwell received her degree only in 1849). Second, “the erasure of these early pioneers has resulted in an entire generation of women growing up believing that women cannot excel in science,” the author notes. But then the Indian media, too, must share the blame. Taking its cue from Western liberal media and in order to increase sales, it mindlessly and almost tyrannically propagated through the 1990s the pseudoscientific theory that women are right-brained and men are left-brained until it was officially debunked. Indeed, it is the left-handed who are right-brained and vice-versa; also the brain functions optimally when there is parity in the hemispheric usages.
There are only two complaints one might have regarding this short (pp. 270) and elegant collection — the absence of either paintings or photos of the pioneers and more light on Lady Abala Bose, who, the author writes, joined the Madras Medical College in 1884. One wishes her adventures, too, were a part of this trove of treats for history buffs and anecdote lovers.

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine
Kavitha Rao
Westland, 270 pages, Rs.499


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