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First lady doctor of India

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By Abhijit Gupta The writer teaches English at Jadavpur University
  • Published 19.12.10

Rabindranath Tagore’s is not the only sesquicentennial coming up in 2011. Brief Lives would also like to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Kadambini Gangopadhyay, the first woman graduate (along with Chandramukhi Basu) in the erstwhile British empire, and the first woman to be trained in western medicine.

Though her father’s family came from Barisal, Kadambini was born in Bhagalpur in 1861 where her father, the noted Brahmo, Brajakishore Basu, was a school headmaster. For her own school she attended the Hindu Mahila Bidyalay in Calcutta, which had been set up by Annette Akroyd.

This school soon became the Banga Mahila Bidyalay, the first-ever college in India for women in 1876 and merged with Bethune College in 1878.

After passing her Entrance examinations in 1878, Kadambini became the first Indian woman to clear the admission test into Calcutta University. Five years later, she and Chandramukhi Basu became the first Indian women to pass a BA examination.

The same year she married the Brahmo, Dwarakanath Gangopadhyay, and set her sights on joining the medical profession. Though Kadambini was successful in joining the Calcutta Medical College in 1884, she immediately ran into a wall of male hostility. Many members of the faculty were opposed to the idea of a woman physician, so that after four years of study Kadambini was able to pass all the papers in her course bar the one on medicine.

This meant that she could not get an MB degree and was instead awarded the degree of GBSM (Graduate of Bengal Medical College).

At this point, another remarkable woman took her case in hand. On February 20, 1888, Florence Nightingale wrote to an acquaintance: “Do you know or could tell me anything about…Mrs Ganguly, or give me any advice? ... [she] has already passed what is called the first licentiate in medicine and surgery examinations and is to go up for the final examination in March next. (This young lady, Mrs Ganguly, married! after she made up her mind to become a doctor! and has had one, if not two children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in!! and did not miss, I believe, a single lecture!!” Elsewhere in the letter, Nightingale wrote that she had been asked to recommend Kadambini to Lady Dufferin, “for any posts about the female wards of Calcutta”.

In 1892, Kadambini sailed for England and obtained various qualifications from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. On her return she worked at Lady Dufferin Hospital for a short period before beginning her own private practice.

Her public life was crowded with activity: from being the first woman speaker at a session of the Indian National Congress (1890, Calcutta), to being the first chair of the Transvaal Indian Association (1907), to being a member of the committee set up to report on the working conditions for female labourers in Bihar and Orissa (1922). She died in 1923.