Born in 1865 in an extremely orthodox Brahmin family in Maharashtra, a 9 year old girl got married to a widower who was almost thrice her age. Sounds like a normal “old Indian saga”? Not really! The girl later on became the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor. Even though she died at a very young age of 21, she opened the gates for many young women in India who wanted to do much more than devoting their entire life to household chores. Yes, we are talking about Anandi Gopal Joshi, India’s first lady to qualify as a doctor from the USA in 1886.
You go to a hospital and a lady doctor is there to attend to you. Doesn’t look like an unusual scenario, right? But back then in the nineteenth century, it was nothing less than a miracle. Even today, India is struggling with a major dearth of doctors, especially female doctors. At present, nearly 66 percent of the health workers are men. Only 17% of all allopathic doctors and 6% of allopathic doctors in rural areas are women. According to the paper “Human resources for health in India”, published in the British Medical Journal ‘Lancet’, 1 in 5 dentists are women while the number stands at 1 in 10 pharmacists. (Source)
If this is the condition in the current scenario, where we believe India is progressing rapidly and women are getting equal opportunities, just imagine what would have been the condition at the time when Joshi dared to go out of her way to pursue medicine.
We all hear about how people fight against the masses and make their mark. In the glory and the success we often fail to recall the efforts of other people who made it possible for them. Every superhero has his army of helpers and we have this army in real life too in the form of family, friends, mentors etc.
Gopalrao Joshi, Anandi’s liberal husband is one such person who stood by his wife’s side and acted as her biggest inspiration and push. Gopalrao, a postal clerk, was determined to educate his wife when she expressed her wish to study medicine at the age of 14, after losing their first child just 10 days after delivery because of unavailability of proper medical resources.
At a time when women’s education wasn’t taken seriously, Gopalrao appeared as a great exception. He had married Anandi on the condition that he should be permitted to educate the girl and that she should be willing to read and write.
Gopalrao started teaching Anandi how to read and write Marathi, English and Sanskrit. He also transferred himself to Calcutta to avoid direct interference of Anandi’s parents in her education.
Gopalrao was an obsessed man. One day, when she was found helping her grandmother in the kitchen, Gopalrao flew into an uncontrollable rage and beat the young girl with a bamboo stick. The neighbourhood was agog: husbands beat wives for not cooking — but whoever had heard of a wife being beaten for cooking when she should have been reading. (source)
Anandi gradually turned into a well-read intellectual girl. All this change took place in the face of stiff opposition from her parents, frequent bickering in the family and the stubborn attitude of her husband. (Source)
In 1880, he sent a letter to a well-known American missionary, Royal Wilder, stating his wife’s keenness to study medicine in America and if he would be able to help them. Wilder agreed to help the couple on the condition that they convert to Christianity. This proposition was not accepted by the Joshis.
Wilder extended his help by writing about it in a local paper, and Theodicia Carpenter, a rich American from New Jersey, saw the articles, and offered to help Anandi as she was impressed by the earnestness and keenness of Anandi to study medicine.
In the meanwhile, Anandi’s health was constantly declining. She suffered from weakness, constant headaches, occasional fever, and, sometimes, breathlessness. Initially reluctant to go abroad due to her bad health, Anandi eventually agreed after much persuasion from her husband and started studying medicine in Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now known as Drexel University College of Medicine) at the age of 19 and got her M.D. degree in 1886. On her graduation, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. She completed her thesis on obstetric practices among the ancient Hindus.
Anandi’s extract from her letter of application to WMCP says,
“[The] determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends and caste ought to go a long way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came, i.e. is to render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves,” (Source)
Anandi was already ill with the first symptoms of the tuberculosis that would ultimately kill her. Her health worsened when she returned to India in 1886. She received a grand welcome and The princely state of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital.
Anandi received a letter from Lokamanya Tilak, Editor “Kesari”, saying, inter alia,
“I know how in the face of all the difficulties you went to a foreign country and acquired knowledge with such diligence. You are one of the greatest women of our modern era. It came to my knowledge that you need money desperately. I am a newspaper editor. I do not have a large income. Even then I wish to give you one hundred rupees.”
Anandi died a few days after it. She passed away on 26th February 1887, a month before turning 22. Her ashes were sent to Mrs. Carpenter, her host in America who placed them in her family cemetery near New York.
Caroline Wells Healey Dall wrote Anandibai’s biography in 1888. Doordarshan aired a Hindi serial named “Anandi Gopal” based on Anandibai’s life. (Kamlakar Sarang directed the serial.) Shrikrishna Janardan Joshi wrote a fictionalized account of Anandabai ‘s life in his Marathi novel Anandi Gopal. (The novel has been translated in an abridged form in English by Asha Damle.) It has also been adapted into a play of the same name by Ram G. Joglekar.
Institute for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences (IRDS), a Non-governmental organization from Lucknow has been awarding the Anandibai Joshi award for Medicine in reverence to her early contributions to the cause of Medical sciences in India.
In a time when a women’s position was not even considered in the society and their education was unthinkable, Anandi took a bold step to fight and go against the flow to become a doctor. This was possible because of a big supporting hand from her husband Gopalrao who never let her quit and always inspired her to do more.
When some parts of India still deal with unsupportive husbands and a society that thinks a woman’s place is inside the house, the story of the couple is a fresh change. We don’t know if Gopalrao was too harsh on his wife and whether his obsession was justified. All we can say is his support for women’s education and their empowerment was remarkable for the time he lived in.
Though she could not convert her degree into a successful profession due to her untimely death, Anandibai surely left a mark on India’s heart and contributed to a much better, and bolder, India.