Book Review: Has anything really changed for our lady doctors?
Kadambini Ganguly, the first Indian woman to get a degree in medicine, was called 'a whore' by the conservative Bengali paper 'Bangabasi' in 1891. Other lady doctors too faced patriarchal prejudices
In November 2020, an incident occurred at the sarkari hospital where I work and also head. At that time, there were only two doctors posted here: I, and a female colleague of mine. My colleague is senior to me – age-wise, academically and she joined the service three years before me – I value her counsel and co-operation.
On that particular afternoon, my colleague was on duty. I received a call from the then-Civil Surgeon of our district.
‘Where are you?’ he asked.
‘At home,’ I replied.
‘Who is on duty now?’
I named my colleague’s name.
‘Is she there on duty?’ the Civil Surgeon asked. ‘Find out. I just got a call that there is no doctor in your hospital.’
I wondered what had happened as I dialled my colleague’s number. She picked up.
‘Is everything okay?’ I was somewhat hesitant because I knew that she was at work. But I had been ordered to follow up on her.
‘Why? What should have happened?’ My colleague was calm, probably aware of what was happening.
I told her that I had received a call from the Civil Surgeon to find out if there was a doctor in our hospital.
‘I am at the hospital,’ my colleague’s calmness concealed any indignation that she might have been feeling. ‘Whoever wishes to check may come.’
Before hanging up, she told me things that stunned me with their ridiculousness.
A case of road traffic accident had come at the hospital. A bunch of men, all drunk,early-winter picnickers, had fallen off their motorcycles and scraped their limbs. They came to our hospital and demanded, ‘Doctor kahaanhai?’ Where is the doctor?’
My colleague and adresser – a man in his mid-twenties – got down to work.
‘How are you feeling? Where are you hurt?’
My colleague started taking the history of the injured, but those men wouldn’t answer any of her questions. Instead, they spoke only to the dresser, demanding repeatedly, ‘Where is the doctor?’
‘Arrey, ye hi doctor hain!’ Flustered, after being haggled about the doctor, the dresser pointed towards my colleague. She is the doctor!
‘Why is there no doctor here? Call the doctor. Otherwise, we will call higher authorities,’ those men started creating a scene.
‘Here, call.’ My colleague gave them the Civil Surgeon’s number and walked away from them.
And that was how that call – about there being no doctor at our hospital – had gone to the Civil Surgeon.
When I reached the campus, the dresser corroborated all that my colleague had told me.
‘Sir, those men just wouldn’t believe that madam was the doctor. They started phoning everyone.’
Reading Kavitha Rao’s book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, reminded me that matters for women doctors have not really changed, be it the 1800s or the 2020s.
In her book, Rao chronicles the lives of six women from India who battled odds and opposition – mostly from the patriarchal set-up – to study and later practise medicine. But those lives had been lived during the 1800s or – at the most – before India’s independence in 1947.
What happened in our hospital happened in November 2020, bang in the middle of the first and the second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, and involved men, who just wouldn’t acknowledge a woman doctor even though she was standing just before them, examining their wounds, and instead chose to talk to a dresser and to the Civil Surgeon, perhaps because they both were men.
The six women practitioners of medicine profiled in Rao’s book are Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose.
However, the book begins with women who came and prejudices that were practised much earlier in time. One of those women was an Egyptian doctor named Merit-Ptah who reportedly lived around 2,700 BC and, despite being considered “the world’s first woman physician”, “likely never existed” and had wrongly been named by the Canadian doctor Kate Campbell Hurd-Meadinin her book on women doctors as “the first woman doctor”.
Rao observes: “The case of Merit-Ptah indicates how eager women doctors were to find icons and role models to lead the way.” Rao further elaborates how in Athens around the 4th century BC, “male doctors began to feel threatened” by the popularity of female midwives (midwives, not even female doctors!) and the “Hippocrates’ school barred women and…midwifery became punishable by death.”
The opposition to women doctors – and also to education, in general, for women – came not only from the patriarchal set-up but also from individuals who are considered legends today. One person whose presence in this context in Rao’s book shocked me was Florence Nightingale.
Rao mentions how Nightingale, the iconic nurse, a trailblazer in her own right, “was fundamentally against women doctors, believing that they were all second-rate and would be better off being good nurses instead.”
There is also the nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who “wanted Swaraj, but not for women and especially not for lower-caste women” and whose attempts at “attacking women’s education in general and Rukhmabai [Raut] in particular” as described in Rao’s book are somewhat disturbing.
These six women are heroes, but Rao does not eulogise them. Their personal, academic, and professional lives have all been accounted for but their stories have been told as, well, stories—in a manner that any reader could familiarise themselves with them and, in turn, feel for them instead of merely looking up to them.
For example, Kadambini Ganguly, the first Indian woman to get a degree in medicine and whom the conservative Bengali paper Bangabasi had called “a whore” in the year 1891, “seemed to write few letters, wrote no diary and generally kept a low profile.”
This could mean that Rao had to build up the story of Ganguly’s life from scratch, putting in both research as well as imagination, ultimately resulting in an engrossing, empathetic account. Also, Rao addresses her subjects by their first names, as in the case of a story or a novel.
I learnt from Google that there are two Bengali TV series made on Kadambini Ganguly’s life; one Marathi film made on Rukhmabai Raut’s life and one Hindi TV series (which I remember from my childhood) and a Marathi film made on Anandibai Joshi’s life.
While cinema and television might have helped in spreading the word about these pioneers, I cannot help wondering how a medium as glamorous as cinema or TV might have portrayed the lives of these women for, it is clear, the lives of these six women were anything but glamorous—especially the life of HaimabatiSen, “[married] at nine to a 45-year old [man]” and “[widowed] at twelve”, whose chapter in Rao’s book is aptly titled “The Fighter”.
In the chapter about Kadambini Ganguly, Rao mentions it quite a few times that Ganguly had “eight children to take care of” apart from a flourishing practice. Rao also mentions an incident where “[Ganguly] was called to attend a childbirth in a rich family” and was “treated as no more than a midwife, or dai.”
This part in Rao’s book reminded me of a running joke among the women doctors in the ObsGynae department of the medical college where I studied about how the common people saw women doctors working in labour rooms as dai-chamayin(the colloquial terms for midwife)!
Even though most men – fathers, mostly – in the lives of Rao’s subjects were allies, supportive of them despite the prevalent societal mores of those times, Rao is critical of the allyship shown by a man like Gopal Vinayak Joshi, the husband of Anandibai Joshi, which seemed more like a personal ambition than anything else.
Also, Rao stresses on the role of progressive social movements, like the Brahmo Samaj which was instrumental in building the careers of two women doctors: Kadambini Ganguly and Haimabati Sen. Yet, Rao does not hesitate in revealing the duplicity of even a revolutionary idea like the Brahmo Samaj when she observes: “even amongst the Brahmos, the emphasis was often on grooming what they thought were perfect Hindu women, while the men were allowed to study whatever they wanted.”
Rao does not shy away from analysing the role of caste, community, and religion in the lives of her subjects. Rukhmabai Raut came from the Suthar or carpenter caste (certainly a lower caste) and “would be savagely attacked and shamed by [Tilak] and other upper-caste Hindu conservatives”.
In the chapter about Raut, Rao makes an interesting observation: “If Anandibai [Joshi] (most certainly a Brahmin and traditionally entitled to education) was one facet of Indian women—the comforting face of tradition—the radical Rukhmabai Raut was the polar opposite.” No wonder, the chapter about Raut is titled “The Rule Breaker”.
The caste issue is further explored in the chapter about Muthulakshmi Reddy. Reddy was the daughter of a devadasi, who came from the Isai Vellalar community which is “now classed as backward class”. Reddy’s father, however, was a Brahmin, “reportedly ostracised by his family for marrying a devadasi”, and it is understood that it was her father’s progressive outlook and position as the headmaster of Pudukkottai’s Maharajah College – besides his caste privilege, quite certainly – that enabled Reddy’s education.
An intense drama in Reddy’s life perhaps came from her clash with a “formidable opponent”, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, “a devadasi who was born into poverty [who] eventually became a highly respected musician”, in the matter of the abolishment of the devadasi system.
One insight I came away with from Rao’s book was how these women were pioneers in not only the field of women’s education but in contributing to the society as well. Rukhmabai Raut headed the SMV Hospital in Surat during the plague of 1895.HaimabatiSen cared “for an astonishing 485 children, including day-old orphans” in Chinsurah. Muthulakshmi Reddy founded the Avvai Home and the Adyar Cancer Institute in Madras.
Where from did this instinct of paying it back – or, simply, benevolence – come to these women? Did it stem from their difficult lives and struggles? Was it ingrained in their blood or their upbringing? Was it their response to the attacks they faced from patriarchy and those in positions of power and privilege? Or was it just what these women were—kind souls showing acts of kindness without expecting anything in return?
Whatever the reason might be, even words like remarkable and illustrious are inadequate to express the lives and achievements of these women.
Rao’s book is an important one and I hope it is read widely. As the child of a doctor mother and a doctor myself, I just wish doctors and the issues we face are acknowledged.