I came across the above image today, showing three ladies who came to study Medicine in America. Dr. Anandabai Joshee, among them, was the first Indian woman to have obtained a medical degree abroad. They are featured in a recent news story on PRI.
Trying to learn more about her, I came upon a remarkable biography of her life, published in 1888. It contains many of her own words, in letters and speeches.
This was 1883. Indians were still extremely conservative, and it was unheard of for a Hindu woman, who had not converted to Christianity, to travel abroad for any reason.
In a public talk she gave in India before her departure, she spoke forcefully against popular opinion which condemned her decision to travel abroad, and that too on her own (she was supported strongly in this unusual venture by her husband, an enlightened man for his time, who worked as a postmaster in Serampore):
"To go to foreign countries is not bad, but in some respects better than to stay in one place. The study of people and places is not to be neglected. Ignorance when voluntary is criminal. In going to foreign countries, we may enlarge our comprehension, perfect our knowledge, or recover lost arts. Every one must do what he thinks right."She spoke of her motivation:
"I go to America because I wish to study medicine. I now address the ladies present here, who will be the better judges of the importance of female medical assistance in India. I never consider this subject without being surprised that none of those societies so laudably established in India for the promotion of sciences and female education have ever thought of sending one of their female members into the most civilized parts of the world to procure thorough medical knowledge, in order to open here a College for the instruction of women in medicine... The want of female physicians in India is keenly felt in every quarter."Upon her graduation in the US, she was offered a position back in India as the Lady Doctor of Kolhapur. Her true nobility and spirit of service can be gauged from the following account. Her offer letter stated seven conditions, with the final one reading: "Private practice will be allowed to any extent that will not interfere with public duties, but no fees are to be charged for attending on the ladies of the palace, or on the wives of contributors to the Hospital Funds."
To this, she is said to have responded:
"There is nothing in the seven conditions which you name, that causes me any uneasiness, but if any question were likely to arise under it, I might object to the seventh... Our Shastras require us to impart the gifts of healing and of religious truth without pay, and to this practice I shall adhere; but if I ever meant to take a fee from any one, it would assuredly be from those who are rich and powerful, and never from those who are poor and depressed."She returned to India in 1885, but unfortunately died of Tuberculosis within months of her arrival before she could begin her practice. She was only 21 years old.
Reading this courageous woman's story made me reflect on the very bright and capable young female student from India I hosted in my lab as a summer research Intern just this summer. She told me she hopes to return to the US to do a Ph.D. but eventually plans to settle back in India. I suspect she has not before heard of this admirably strong woman from the 19th century, whose footsteps she is following.