A trailblazer in many respects, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was the first woman legislator in India, and the founder of Adyar Cancer Institute.

Google Doodle honours Adyar Cancer Institute founder Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi
news Women Tuesday, July 30, 2019 - 15:36

On Tuesday, search giant Google honoured the late Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi with a doodle. The doodle featured a bespectacled woman, with a book clutched to her chest in one hand, her other hand stretched out in front of her. The doodle portrayed women walking along the line of Dr Reddi’s silhouette – a testament to her contribution to women’s issues and empowerment when she was alive.

So, who is Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, whose 133rd birth anniversary falls on July 30, 2019?

Dr Reddi was a trailblazer in many respects – one of the most prominent Indian women doctors of the 20th century. She was also India’s first woman legislator from Madras State, and the founder of Adyar Cancer Institute. Although in 1922 Dr Mary Poonen Lukose was the first woman legislator in the princely state of Travancore (which was not part of British India), Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1927, making her India’s first woman legislator under the Government of India Act, 1919.

In fact, the Tamil Nadu government announced on Monday that they would have ‘Hospital Day’ celebrations on July 30 every year to commemorate Dr Reddi’s contributions to public health. As part of ‘Hospital Day’, doctors and other medical staff would have the opportunity to showcase new initiatives and achievements.

Dr Reddi was born in 1886 in Puddukottai, a princely state at the time. Born at a time where it was unheard of for women to defy social norms, be seen in public eye as more than wives and daughters, Dr Reddi’s life story is iconic for sheer number of barriers she fought against and emerged victorious.

To begin with, she insisted on completing her education, defying the plans for her early marriage. However, the outrage around her studying at Maharaja College, formerly an all-boys institution, resulted in threats of other students pulling out of the college, However, Muthulakhsmi got a scholarship and later became the first woman student in the Department of Surgery at the Madras Medical College. She also went on to become the first woman to graduate from Madras University in 1912, after which she became the first woman in-house surgeon at the Government Maternity Hospital there.

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Six years later in 1918, Dr Reddi was one of the founders of the Women’s Indian Association. The motive of this Association was to emancipate women to make them more politically and socio-economically empowered. However, she resigned from the Council in 1930 to support the Salt Satyagraha.  

In 1927, Dr Reddi became a member and the vice-president of the Madras Legislative Assembly, the first woman to do so. Three years later, she set up the Avvai Home for orphaned girls as well as daughters of devadasis.

According to the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research Volume, Dr Reddi played a vital role in fighting for the legislation to abolish the now infamous devadasi system. “The Act to Prevent Cruelty to Children, the Immoral Traffic Control Act, raising the age of consent of girls for marriage and many other acts of social reform were enacted into laws, entirely due to her efforts,” the article said.

In 1954, Dr Reddi founded the Cancer Relief Fund and the Adyar Cancer Institute, which now offers treatments to tens of thousands from deadly cancers. Her dream to set up an institution such as this also stemmed from a personal loss – in 1927, she lost a younger sister to misdiagnosed rectal cancer.

A few years after that, she went to London to further study medicine. She witnessed there at the Royal Marsden Hospital how patients were getting cured of rectal cancer. She met Dr Ernest Miles, who was working on these patients, and that’s where Dr Reddi apparently decided that there must be haven for those affected by cancer back home as well.

Thanks to her yeomen contributions, Dr Reddi was felicitated with the Padma Bhushan in 1956.

Dr Reddi passed away in 1968 when she was 81 years old. Her legacy, and devotion to women’s issues is glimpsed in an article she wrote for The Hindu, published on August 15, 1947, when India got its independence. She said, “Because freedom for India means freedom for every man and woman and child. The emancipation of women has always been closely bound up with the struggle for political freedom.”

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