In the 1800s, She Broke Barriers in Education, Medicine and Law and Abolished the Devadasi System

From being the first woman medical graduate of India to becoming the first woman member of a Legislative Council, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.

From being the first woman medical graduate of India to becoming the first woman member of a Legislative Council, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.

In the midst of the bustling neighbourhood of Adyar in Chennai, a white building stands out prominently: The Cancer Institute. Over the years, the multi-storeyed building has become a symbol of hope for the hundreds who make their way to it, bodies ravaged by disease but spirits buoyed by optimism. The institute has saved thousands of lives since its inception in 1954; lives and families that would otherwise have been destroyed were it not for the efforts of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy.

On July 30, 1886, in the princely state of Pudukkottai, Narayanaswami Iyer and Chandramma welcomed a new member into their family – baby Muthulakshmi.

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi
Narayanaswami Iyer and Chandramma along with their children. Muthulakshmi is seen holding a file in the picture
Image Source: India International Centre

Muthulakshmi was born in a day and age where the phrase ‘women must be seen and not heard,’ was often bandied about and used as an excuse to subvert the true potential of women. Not one to allow society to dictate her life choices, Muthulakshmi set out to write her own destiny, in the process breaking many barriers in the field of medicine, legislation and politics. Not only did this trailblazer do exceedingly well for herself in every endeavour she undertook, she also paved the way for the generations of women who came after her.

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At the young age of 13, Muthulakshmi’s keen mind and quick ability to grasp things made her a roaring success at school. Upon reaching maturity, she continued her education through home-schooling.

Muthulakshmi passed her matriculation examination with flying colours. Her excellent performance was the talk of town, especially since it translated into her qualifying for college admission. Muthulakshmi, who had always dreamed of becoming a graduate, confidently submitted her application for admission to the stunned principal and professors of Maharaja College, Pudukottai.

Her simple dream of pursuing her education was met with stunned silence that steadily grew into alarmed outrage by conservative sections of society. Bowing to social pressures, the college refused to admit her despite her impressive academic record. It was only when Martanda Bhairava Thondaman, the forward-thinking Raja of Pudukkottai stepped in and ordered them to take-in Muthulakshmi, that the college grudgingly accepted her application.

Muthulakshmi became the first woman in Pudukottai to pursue a college education, and in a men’s college, no less!

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy
Image Source: Facebook

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For Muthulakshmi, this was only the beginning. After completing her under-graduation from her hometown, she sought – and successfully gained – admission into the Madras Medical College. It was during her college years that Muthulakshmi formed a deep friendship with Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant, two individuals whose personal philosophies would go on to influence many of her future endeavours.

With impressive single-minded focus, Muthulakshmi won the unique distinction of becoming the first woman medical graduate of India in 1912. She also went on to become the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, Madras.

dr muthulakshmi reddy - medical student
Muthulakshmi as a young medical student
Image Source: India International Centre

Muthulakshmi was pursuing her higher education in London when, upon a request from the Women’s Indian Association – an organisation she helped establish in 1918, she returned home to enter the Madras Legislative Council. She was elected to the post of Vice-President, making her the first Indian woman member of a Legislative Council.

The event also marked her entry into politics and legislation, an area in which her efforts led to a marked improvement in the lives of women everywhere. In her capacity as a legislator, Muthulakshmi helped raise the minimum age for marriage for girls. Concerned about human trafficking, she pushed the Council to pass the crucial Immoral Traffic Control Act.

Being the daughter of a devadasi herself, she was also distinctly aware of the treatment meted out to women like her mother. Their lack of political agency and the prejudices that coloured their every interaction with all members of society disturbed her. This pushed her to pass the path-breaking law on abolishment of the devadasi system; the reverberations of this legislation can be felt across generations even today.

She is believed to have remarked, “Laws and legislation are there only for sanction. It is up to us women to energize these and implement them into action.”

dr muthulakshmi - hartog commission
Dr Muthulakshmi with the Hartog Commission on a study about the progress of women’s education in India
Image Source: India International Centre

Muthulakshmi realised that despite the devadasi system being abolished, there were still deeply-ingrained prejudices that many women freed from the shackles of this toxic system had to fight every day. This fact became more evident when, in 1930, three young devadasi girls knocked on her door, seeking shelter and protection.

When existing shelters failed to take in the girls, Muthulakshmi set out to create a safe haven for them and countless young girls like them: Avvai Home. Initially, the home was run out her own residence in Adyar.

Today, the home has grown to include an educational complex that houses a primary school, a secondary school, a higher secondary school as well as a teachers’ training Institution. While the home was started primarily for devadasis, its doors are open to all women who need assistance today.

Dr Muthulakshim (Centre) with members and staff of the Avvai Home
Dr Muthulakshmi (Centre) with members and staff of the Avvai Home
Image Source: India International Centre

Having witnessed the painful and untimely death of her sister due to cancer, Muthulakshmi had also been toying with the idea of opening up a specialised cancer hospital. She dreamt of a place where anyone suffering from cancer would receive treatment, irrespective of social and economic status.

In 1954, after overcoming several hurdles, Muthulakshmi’s dream came to life with the Cancer Institute. It was the second specialised cancer centre in India and the first in South India at the time.

Dr Muthulakshmi (second from right) welcomes Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to lay the foundation stone of the Cancer Institute
Dr Muthulakshmi (second from right) welcomes Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to lay the foundation stone for the Cancer Institute
Image Source: Youtube

Today, the Adyar Cancer Institute, as it is sometimes called, boasts of a 450-bed hospital, a full-fledged research division, a Preventive Oncology department, and the Dr Muthulakshmi College of Oncologic Sciences. The patients and families who have benefitted from this institute are numerous, and ever increasing.

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In 1956, in recognition of her wonderful work in the social sector, Muthulakshmi was awarded the Padma Bhushan.

A bust of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy at the Cancer Institute, Chennai
A bust of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy at the Cancer Institute, Chennai
Image Source: India International Centre

Muthulakshmi passed away in 1968 at the age of 81. Although she is no longer with us, her legacy lives on: in every devadasi who has won her freedom, in every girl who stands up against child marriage, in every woman who becomes a doctor, and in every individual whose life was transformed by the Avvai Home and the Cancer Institute.

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