Dr Mary Poonen Lukose was a trailblazer in every sense of the word.
She was the first female Malayali graduate, headed the Health Department in the Princely State of Travancore (which made her the de-facto Health Minister), served as India’s first woman legislator when she was nominated to the state legislative council and eventually became the first woman Surgeon General of Travancore; and was in fact, the first woman to be appointed Surgeon General anywhere in the world.
Awarded the title of Vaidyasasthrakusala from the last Maharaja of Travancore Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, she was also presented with the Padma Shri in 1975.
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However, Dr Lukose’s life was so much more than these legendary accomplishments.
Born on August 2, 1886, in Aymanam village, she was an extremely bright student who topped her matriculation exam but was denied admission into the sciences at the Maharajas College, Thiruvananthapuram (affiliated to Madras University, and called the University College today) because of her gender.
Instead, she had to pursue a BA degree, but this also wasn’t without its obstacles. She was the only female student in college, and in 1909 became the first woman graduate out of the illustrious Madras University.
To pursue medicine, she left India and made her way to London, where she earned her MBBS from London University and thus becoming the first woman from Kerala to graduate in medicine.
“She then opted for postgraduate study in obstetrics and gynaecology at the famous Rotunda Hospital in Dublin and trained in paediatrics at the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, London,” says this biographical description.
Her time spent in the United Kingdom was critical in the way she would rise through the ranks once she came to India, following her father’s death in 1915.
Her training as a midwife was a baptism of fire, working outside the slums of Dublin, Ireland, in absolutely horrific conditions. More than anything else, however, she developed a real strength of character living all by herself during her time abroad.
When she came back to India in 1916, she found a progressive regime under Mulam Thirunal Rama Varma, the ruling Maharaja of Travancore, that was favourable to qualified women.
She successfully conducted present-day Kerala’s first C-Section procedure in 1920. However, her career really took off when Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to power in 1924. She was promoted to head the medical department and nominated to the state’s legislative council called the Sree Chitra State Council.
As head of the medical department, she undertook many revolutionary steps, including the establishment of training classes for local midwives.
Just three years after the Maharani took over, the services of these trained midwives were heavily sought in the rural belts. In only three years, around 10% of all births in the state were being handled by qualified personnel instead of rudimentary deliveries at home.
According to historian Manu S Pillai, “By 1929, 1.6 million of the five million subjects of Travancore had access to modern medicine.” Under her leadership, the region made rapid strides in the delivery of public healthcare, which would inspire future generations of medical practitioners around India.
Appointed Surgeon General of Travancore in 1938, she oversaw the operations of 32 government hospitals, 50 dispensaries and 20 private institutions, states Wikipedia.
During her remarkable tenure, she also founded one of India’s first sanatoriums—the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Nagercoil, which would one day develop into the Kanyakumari Government Medical College. She also famously founded the X-Ray and Radium Institute in Thiruvananthapuram.
In her personal life, she also made unorthodox choices, marrying a man younger than her who would one day become a judge.
She outlived her husband and two children—Gracie, a doctor at Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi, and son KP Lukose, a permanent representative of India to the United Nations. Despite suffering these personal losses, she lived the rest of her life in quiet dignity until her eventually passing on October 2, 1976, at the ripe old age of 90.
This remarkable woman was a pioneer, institution builder, and showed a way for women to succeed at a time when it didn’t seem possible. Her story of overcoming stereotypes and hurdles is one that needs to be told.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)