In the early 1880s, there was great consternation when Anandibai Joshi’s family heard about her proposed trip to the United States of America to study medicine. Uppermost on their minds were issues of purity, pollution, food proscriptions, and to a less extent, mode of dressing. Was she going to eat, dress and live like a memsahib' As it is, the fact that she would have to dissect cadavers of those usually regarded as beyond the pale of Hindu society was also extremely worrying. No doubt both Anandi and her husband, Gopalrao, were aware of what a medical education involved, but that did not deter them. Nor did it deter Kadambini Ganguly who, at that time, was training to be a doctor at the Calcutta Medical College established in 1835, the first Indian institution to teach Western medicine. Its elegant Palladian-style building (see photograph), eminent teachers and elite students (they had to be competent in English) aimed at creating a cadre of young men committed to becoming Western-educated professionals. In 1883, Kadambini was the first woman to be granted admission.
In the decades following the establishment of the college, the popularity of Western medicine had to contend with resistance and arguments from schools of indigenous medicine as well as homeopathy, both of which had strong roots in India. An interface between different streams, Western science and local knowledge depended on mediators, and the approach of new practitioners was helped by explanatory articles in newspapers, periodicals and medical journals as well as discussions in debating societies. Interestingly, in Bengal, where the 19th-century reform movement was involved with issues relating to girls’ education, early marriage, polygamy and by implication, marital relations (the Age of Consent debate in the 1890s, for instance), discussions on changing medical practices neatly fitted into the extending discourse.
Professionals such as Annadacharan Khastagir, a doctor of Western medicine, was involved, along with Dwarakanath Ganguly, Sivanath Sastri, Durgamohan Das and other Brahmos, with the Hindu Balika Bidyalaya. He also set up a girls’ school in Chittagong city — today one of the best in Bangladesh — that is now known as Dr Khastagir Government Girls’ School. Among its students was Pritilata Waddedar of the Chittagong Armoury Raid fame.
By the time Kadambini entered medical college, girl’s and women’s health was part of the medical discourse and the need for women doctors was being articulated among certain sections; it was not enough to have only dais and midwives when better options were clearly at hand. As late as 1901, an article in the journal, Swasthya, entitled “The context of health: dowry and women’s health”, noted that “it is...absolutely essential for the parents to check during match-making whether there is any history of a genetic disorder running through the family”. There were some further comments on the dowry system and how it imposed a burden on the fathers of daughters, who, the article lamented, hardly paid any attention to their child’s health. The situation was hardly different in other parts of the country.
Though a medical college teaching Western medicine existed in Bombay, Anandibai did not attend it. Nor did she have any regular schooling. Her husband was her chief instructor, and in any case, it was not usual for traditional Marathi Brahmin girls to go to school until the last decades of the 19th century. It was going to be almost half a century before a girl — and a Christian at that — was granted admission to the newly-established medical college. Grant Medical College — named after Sir Robert Grant, former governor of Bombay who had consistently worked to establish Western medicine, battening down what he felt was native prejudice and ignorance — began in October 1845.
Admission was granted to young men between the ages of 16 and 20, irrespective of caste or creed, the prerequisites were a practical knowledge of the vernacular, some arithmetic — and a thorough knowledge of English. The entrance examination was anything but easy as it included Milton’s Paradise Lost. The first students were Parsis, Brahmins and Christians, and several years later, Annie Walker (later Mrs Sharp) was the first woman to qualify in Medicine, graduating in 1889 as GGMC or Graduate of Grant Medical College. She became an assistant to Edith Pechey at Cama Hospital for women and children. Established by Parsi philanthropists, it was open to all communities though one wing was reserved for Parsis. Dr Pechey had been one of the seven women students who had made history in Edinburgh in November 1870, when there was a riot at Surgeons Hall against their attending a lecture. The women had got their way.
By the time Kadambini graduated in Calcutta, the Lady Dufferin Fund (formally known as the Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India), established to provide professionally trained Western and Indian medical practitioners for zenana women, was expanding. It was the first systematic attempt at institutionalizing Western medicine and its use among Indian women. Kadambini was quick to take advantage of the facilities being made available and, in 1888, was appointed a doctor at the Fund on a monthly salary of Rs 300 — an extremely substantial amount in those days. Both men and women who studied medicine and later became doctors had compromises to make with a traditional caste-based upbringing. Not only did they handle and dissect dead bodies, but they also treated people of all castes and religions. In addition, though there was no dress code, they wore the white coat over their clothes, and men often abandoned dhotis and chaddars for a trouser and shirt.
We do not know whether Kadambini and Anandi were acquainted with each other or indeed knew of their respective achievements. Though their lives were very different, they certainly shared a deep commitment to better medical care for women, crossing the seas to do so. There is a photograph of Kadambini taken in Edinburgh where she is wearing a sari in the style introduced by Jnanadanandini Debi, wife of Satyendranath Tagore. With it she has an elaborate long-sleeved blouse with ruffs at the wrist, and a shawl around her shoulders. We do not know whether she had felt the need for sartorial indulgences such as wearing the more practical skirt and blouse; in fact, in those days, Brahmo women like Swarnalata Ghosh and a few from the Tagore household did wear Western dress with ease and panache, and that too in Calcutta.
It is possible that Kadambini perhaps did not change her style of dressing — and must have caused quite a stir as she would walk into class in Edinburgh, six yards of silk swishing, boots clicking. We know, however, that Anandibai did not wear anything but the sari — and nine yards at that! Worn like a dhoti, though it was more practical than the six yards version, it was nevertheless cumbersome. Feted by the Carpenters’ friends at elaborate non-vegetarian meals, she did not change her dietary habit of not eating meat. And hosted a grand party for her friends with vegetarian fare that she had cooked. On ceremonial occasions, Anandi would wear a resplendent red silk sari, many sets of bangles, a bejeweled choker around her neck, and a nose ring.
All clothing, shoes and books were transported with the two women on their long sea voyages. Not only did they become the first Indian women doctors but were also among the earliest women to travel abroad. Anandi knew all forms of existing locomotion — horse-drawn carriages, the train and now the ocean steamer. And Anandibai’s sea voyage was anything but pleasant. She had to share the cabin with a missionary, Mrs Johnson, whose attention was focused on converting the young girl. Anandibai resisted but was badly shaken by the time she reached New York. Her mentor, Mrs Carpenter’s calm disposition was a great relief — and soon Anandibai became an honorary member of her family, and good friends with the three Carpenter girls. There was no question of conversion. The furthest Mrs Carpenter got to try and pressurise Anandi was when, on a cold and miserable New England winter’s day, she arrived at her door with a skirt and blouse in hand. But to no avail — what would Gopalrao say, shuddered Anandi!