In her book, Kavitha Rao documents the lives of seven trailblazing women who were among the first to study medicine in India, and use it as a vehicle for social reform.

Author Kavitha Rao in a blue dress standing in front of a grey background
Features Interview Friday, July 30, 2021 - 12:16

“(Marriage) comes between me and that thing which I prize above all others-- study and mental cultivation,” wrote Rukhmabai Raut, one of the first few women doctors of India. Hers was a story similar to women across the country in the late 19th century. They were often stripped of their independence, and relegated to their homes after being married off even before hitting puberty. However, even in the unforgiving society of that time, there were a few trailblazers like Rukhmabai Raut and others, who managed to take hold of their lives and not only studied medicine, but practised it and used it as a vehicle of social reform.

Author and journalist Kavitha Rao documents the lives of seven such women in her latest book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine. Even more than a century later, these ‘lady doctors’ — Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose —  have not got due recognition for their immense contribution to Indian society and the medical field.

However, they were all unique in their own right, and helped reform society beyond medicine. TNM spoke to Kavitha about Lady Doctors, her findings during her research, and the impact of these inspiring women. 

Your book talks about seven women who were game changers in the medical field in India, and who all led extremely interesting lives. Is there any one woman’s story that spoke to you personally?

It’s a close call between Rukhmabai and Haimabati. Rukhmabai, I think, speaks to every Indian woman because she spoke out so bravely against the regressive practices of Hindutva, in a manner that women are not doing even in 2021. Her letters are a kind of clarion call to all Indians, especially women who yearn for education. “Do not think that we (Hindu women) are satisfied with the life of drudgery that we live, and that we have no taste for an aspiration after a higher life,” she writes.

That said, I also identify deeply with Haimabati’s very small life, because there have been times that I have led a very small life which often revolved around my children. Haimabati did not really have very lofty aspirations; she initially became a doctor simply in order to feed her family. Her preoccupations were small, like “How will I afford rice today?” and I found her story very moving.

You write that women in India were more keen to take up medicine than any other profession. Do you think this is because they had a passion for it, or simply that career choices were limited for women then? How much of the interest in the profession do you think was generated by women like Anandibai and Rukhmabai Raut?

I think it is because many Indian women at the time were reluctant to go to male doctors, especially for childbirth and related issues. Thus, an opportunity opened up for doctors like Anandibai and Kadambini. Anandibai convinced the community that women doctors were needed by talking about the high mortality rate amongst Indian women. Later the Brahmo movement also talked about how women were suffering because there were few women doctors. Certainly career choices were also limited to women, but the argument that women needed women doctors was a powerful one which convinced many (though of course many also remained unconvinced).

This door was widened by later doctors like Muthulakshmi and Mary, who moved from childbirth to other subjects. Women like Anandibai and Rukhmabai definitely generated interest, because we see that many other women followed them to Drexel and the London School of Medicine, and several of these women became pioneers in Indian medicine. Also, Indian women like Anandibai successfully used colonialism and evangelism to defeat patriarchy in the field of medicine, by using the various schemes set up by missionaries and colonialists to access education, as seen in the Women’s Medical College, Pennsylvania.

Most of the women you wrote about were from upper castes, though they still faced oppression for being women. You mentioned in the book and other interviews that for Rukhmabai Raut and Muthulakshmi Reddy, who were from oppressed communities, caste was not as much of a hindrance as their gender. But what were some ways in which caste did affect these two women’s professional lives, according to your research?

I think I said that the lady doctors did not mention caste much in their own letters and memoirs, but from my own reading between the lines I think caste definitely played a part. Rukhmabai , for instance, was treated quite differently than Anandibai by the press. She was called a "eunuch", branded as dissolute, and there was much sympathy for her husband who had paid so much money for her.  I do not think an upper caste woman would have been treated like that; I think much of the vitriol was due to a fear among [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak and the conservatives that she would influence other lower caste women to revolt, and eventually other women too.

Muthulakshmi too was initially denied admission to college because her mother was from the Isai Vellalar caste, and only gained admission because of the intervention of the Maharajah of Pudukottai. While she never mentioned her mother’s caste, I believe that her strong drive to abolish the devadasi system, and later her establishment of the Avvai Home & Orphanage (which she initially started for girls from Devadasi communities), probably stemmed from this treatment, and the treatment of her mother and aunts in the community.


The cover of 'Lady Doctors' featuring Anandibai Joshi

Some of the ‘lady doctors’ you write about were not just accomplished physicians, but they were also instrumental in changing child marriage laws, bringing suffrage for women etc. Do you think they wanted to take on this mantle and be in the public eye so much? Did you come across signs of frustration in your research?

I think each lady doctor was very different. From Muthulakshmi Reddy’s two memoirs, which provide a very detailed picture, it seems that she enjoyed being in the public eye. She was a very confident woman, but she also believed quite strongly that she could best bring about change by participating in political life. She was also deeply influenced by Gandhi’s call for women to enter public life and influence policy. On the other hand, Rukhmabai seems to have had enough of being in the limelight, after her court case. After she returned to India, she led a very discreet life and did not get involved in public life, devoting herself to her practice. Kadambini was somewhere between the two; she entered public life but was not as outspoken as Muthulakshmi, probably because she was some years ahead of her.

Mary Poonen Lukose had to deal with anti-vaxxers, the fight between homeopathy and modern medicine, non-cooperation of the public when dealing with public health etc. Almost a century later, we find ourselves facing eerily similar problems now. Do you think she would have been satisfied with the way the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled in India?

Certainly not! Mary wanted to make vaccinations easily accessible to everyone, which I think we can agree is not the case, given the many technological hurdles. She believed that individuals would have to bear petty inconveniences for the greater good, so she would certainly have been against religious and public rallies, and indeed all the irresponsible trips to Goa at the height of the pandemic.  As she said, “If you do not mind getting infected with smallpox, the matter does not end there. You are infecting other people.”

She also was a strong supporter of modern medicine and was not a believer in using scarce government funds to support homeopathy. I do not believe she would have been a supporter of the AYUSH Ministry! She would have advocated scientific methods. “Homeopathy is convenient and cheap, but these considerations should not be taken into account. I am not convinced it is as efficacious as allopathy,” she said in the Travancore Legislative assembly, as she probably would say today.

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine was published by Westland Non-Fiction on July 12, 2021. You can purchase a copy of the book here.

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