#BookReview: Iron women in the field of medicine

Author Kavitha Rao’s book Lady Doctors is commendable in bringing to fore and strongly reinstating the life stories of six unsung heroes on the brink of erasure.
Cover of the book by Kavitha Rao.
Cover of the book by Kavitha Rao.
Published on Oct 17, 2021 10:45 AM IST
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ByDr Rohini Gautam Baijal, New Delhi

Lady Doctors is an enlightening, inspirational and truly resurrective compendium of the forgotten life stories of six Indian women pioneers in the field of medicine. Rao having scant recourse to real life sources by sheer dint of exhaustive archival research from regional magazines, letters and disused diaries paints if not a multihued tapestry but a well etched sepia tinted picture. In doing so she firmly reinstates them to their rightful place in text history before they are irrevocably lost in the sands of time.

The book takes us through the starkly varied backgrounds of the six protagonists and the unconventional paths they follow to a common aspiration for a higher life. They brave formidable challenges to gain an education in medicine when the very concept of female education was deemed unnecessary. The monumental courage it took to break the shackles of patriarchy, cloistered societal dictums, caste prejudices, subjugative customs like child marriage to pursue medicine.

The field in itself no less daunting, they persevered and succeeded. Chronologically it starts with Anandi Bai, who was supported by her husband in her endeavors, but faced considerable dissent from society regarding her intent to study medicine abroad. It was considered blasphemous by Hindu society, but she showed rare courage in making a public speech defending her decision. She graduated from Women’s Medical College Pennsylvania to become the first Indian lady doctor, albeit could not practice due to her untimely death.

Kadambini Ganguly was privileged to be born when Brahmo Samaj reformist movement held sway in Bengal this helped her secure an unfettered initial education. However, it was after years of bitter struggle that she secured admission in Calcutta Medical college a hither to all male bastion. She became the first Indian woman to practice western medicine, colonial prejudice however dogged her career and it was only after a degree from Edinburgh that she became the superintendent of Lady Dufferin Hospital.

Rao does not shy from accentuating the politics of the time and aptly incorporates it in presenting Rukhma Bais defiance of child marriage. She was the first Hindu woman to file for divorce and instrumental in raising the age of consent for marriage. Rao also calls out notable personages like Bal Gangadhar Tilak who subject Rukhma Bai to vilification and vituperation in his newspapers Kesari and Mahratta for her stand. In the face of such public degradation, she showed dignity and quiet resolution and went on to attend London School of Medicine. She was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind for her work during the 1889 plague in Surat.

Himavati Sen’s story is by far the most heart wrenching, she was married to a forty-five-year-old and suffered severe marital trauma, widowed at twelve she was outcast and reduced to penury. In her memoir ‘I am A Woman’ she is scathingly critical of the Bengali Hindu societies treatment of women, specially widows of her time. A life beset with poverty she not only supported a feckless husband but achieved a Vernacular Licentiate in medicine and practiced in rural Bengal. Her brutally untarnished periodical brings to light the glaring gender bias which forced her hand to forego her hard-earned gold medal to feed her family.

Rao rounds up her anthology with the two luminaries from the south, though privileged in their paths to becoming doctors, fought tough battles for empowerment of women’s rights. Spurred by strong paternal support utthulakshmi became not only an eminent practitioner but spearheaded the cause of cancer treatment and established Adyar Cancer Institute. She had a powerful presence in the sphere of administration and became the first women to speak in the Legislature.

Mary Poonen Lukose a gynecologist rose to become the first Surgeon General in India. She is credited with laying the foundation of the health care system in Kerela. In the Travancore Legislative Assembly, she faced harsh ridicule from many eminent male peers in her fight for compulsory vaccination against small Pox.

Rao’s work is commendable in bringing to fore and strongly reinstating the life stories of these unsung heroes on the brink of erasure. These narratives not only serve as an inspiration but also fills one with an immense pride. The book is a benchmark in its own right, perhaps imbuing future writers to take it a step further in creating individual biographies of these incredible women.

Title: Lady Doctors - The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine

Author: Kavitha Rao

Publisher: Westland

Price: 499

(The reviewer is a consultant anaesthesiologist.)

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Sunday, December 05, 2021