Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi the first Indian female physician

Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi the first Indian female physician

Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi became first indian female physician in the year 1887.she was also the first indian woman who was trained in western medicine and the first woman to travel to the united states of america.

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.

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.
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.

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.

Anandi Gopal Joshi applied to the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and was granted admission. She traveled to from Calcutta (present day Kolkata) to New York by ship. She began her medical training at the age of nineteen. While in America, her health, which was already not a hundred per cent from her days in India, further deteriorated due to the cold weather and unfamiliar diet. She even went on to suffer tuberculosis or TB. Despite all that, she stayed motivated to complete her MD in medicine. Her journey had been so inspiring that she got much publicity in the Indian press, and on her graduation, the then Queen of England, Empress of India, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. She had become the first woman of Indian origin to study and graduate with a degree in medicine in the United States. Anandi Gopal Joshi went on to inspire generations of women to pursue their higher education.

When she returned to India in 1886, she received a grand welcome, and was appointed as the physician-in-charge at the Albert Edward Hospital in the then princely state of Kolhapur (in present day Maharashtra).

On February 26, 1887, just over a month before her 22nd birthday, Anandi Gopal Joshi died of tuberculosis or TB. Her dream of opening her own medical college for women was left unfulfilled. Her death made headlines across India and the entire nation mourned her passing. As a mark of respect, her ashes were placed in a cemetery in Poughkeepsie in New York.

In her honour, the Institute for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences or IRDS, an NGO from Lucknow, still awards the 'Anandibai Joshi Award for Medicine' in honour of her early contributions to the cause of advancing medical science in India. Even the Government of Maharashtra established a fellowship in Anandi Gopal Joshi's name.

Wilder extended his help by writing about it in a local paper, and Theodocia 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 Lokmanya 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 biography in 1888. Doordarshan aired a Hindi serial named “Anandi Gopal” based on Anandibai 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.

Here are five things you should know about the pioneering medic:

She was motivated to study medicine by her baby’s death:

Joshi was married at the age of just nine, as was common in 19th century India, to a man 20 years older than her.

She gave birth to their first child when she was 14, but her baby son died 10 days later due to a lack of medical care for women. This spurred Joshi to pursue an interest in medicine so she could “help the many who cannot help themselves”, as she later put it in her college application.

Her husband Gopalrao Joshi, a postal clerk, encouraged her ambition and helped to teach her to read and write.

She defied cultural expectations and ill health to qualify as a doctor:

While she was supported by her husband, Joshi’s ambitions were condemned by the orthodox Hindu community, who threatened her with excommunication.

Despite that, she travelled to New York in 1883, chaperoned by  two English acquaintances of a doctor friend. After arriving in America, she wrote to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to ask for a place on their medical programme, one of the first in the world that accepted women. In her application she admitted her credentials may fall below the college’s usual requirements but pleaded for them to make an exception “to render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need”.

She was awarded a place, and studied her two-year diploma alongside two of the first female medical students from Japan and Syria. Despite suffering ill health throughout her studies, she graduated on 11 March, 1885.

She was congratulated by Queen Victoria:

After Joshi was awarded her degree in medicine, the college’s dean wrote of her achievement to Queen Victoria, who was also Empress of India. Victoria reportedly wrote a congratulatory message in response. Joshi received a grand welcome upon her return to India, where the editor of the Kesari newspaper hailed her as ”one of the greatest women of our modern era”.

Her life was tragically cut short:

Returning to India in 1886, Joshi was appointed the physician in charge of the women’s ward at Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur. She dreamed of opening a medical college for women, but was an ambition she never got to realise. She died of tuberculosis on 26 February, 1887, before she had even begun practising medicine. She was just 21.

There is a crater in Venus named after her:

Joshi is one of a number of notable women who have lent their names to sizeable impact craters on Venus. The 34 km diameter crater “Joshee” lies at latitude 5.5° N and longitude 288.8° E. It was named in 1997 by the International Astronomical Union.

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