Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lilavati's Daughters: 2. Dr. Anandibai Joshi

Dr. Anandibai Joshi was the first Indian woman to get a medical degree -- in 1887, and from Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania (which is now the Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia). In Lilavati's Daughters, Joshi's life story, possibly the most amazing and moving story in the book, is recounted by Pooja Thakar in a first person narrative. I'm giving below an extended extract from Pooja Thakar's essay. I have added a few links at the end of this post.

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Anandi Gopal

by Pooja Thakar

I was born on 31st March, 1865 as Yamuna Joshi in Kalyan, a small town near Mumbai. My family used to be the landlords in the town, but had lost their riches. When I was 9 years old, I was married and my name was changed to Anandi.

Before my marriage, I could barely read Marathi. Education of girls was not common then. But my husband, Gopalrao, was an ardent supporter of widow remarriage and women's education. After our marriage, he started teaching me. This was very difficult. In those days, a husband didn't even speak directly to his wife in front of others. In the beginning, my husband tried to enroll me in the missionary schools. But that did not work out. We had to move from Kalyan to Alibaug to Kolhapur and finally to Calcutta where he was left free to teach me.

I didn't have much of a choice whether I liked to learn or not. He was my husband and I had to listen to what he said. I was terrified of him and the scoldings I would receive from him. But once I started learning, I was soon also able to read Sanskrit and als read and speak English.

After my rapid progress, my husband was insistent that I should acquire higher education. We were confused about what I should study. But then I realized that female doctors were a nonexistent facility to any woman in our country. Many women, ashamed or reluctant to approach a male doctor, would suffer a lot as a result. I myself lost my infant son when I was 14. So I decided that I would like to be a doctor. Even the subject I picked for my thesis later was 'Obstetrics among Aryan Hindoos.'

My husband tried very hard to get me admission to some university in America. He even tried to pretend becoming a missionary to that end but it invited only ridicule. However, a Mrs. Carpenter of Roselle, New Jersey, by chance came to know the story and was moved by the correspondence and wrote me a letter. She offered to host me in the USA. Since Gopalrao wasn't able to get a job there we decided that I should leave for America alone. We had to face a lot of opposition and criticism, to the extent of people throwing stones and cow dung at us. Finally, after many trials and tribulations, in June 1883, I reached America and was met by my Carpenter mavashi (aunt).

[... snip ...]

... [T]he room that was provided to me at the college didn't have a proper fireplace. The fireplace emitted a lot of smoke when lit. So it was a choice between smoke and cold! I tried to get another place, but that was not possible as no one was ready to rent a place to a brown, Hindu girl trying to be a doctor. After 1.5-2 years in that place, I had started having a constant temperature and cough.

Well, being in an alien culture, weather was always going to be difficult and I was ready to face it. What was most taxing was my husband's behaviour. After the first few letters, his letters had taken a strange turn. They had grown highly unpredictable, sometimes full of love and support and most of the times chiding and taunting me. Even in his nicer letters, there would be one nasty comment that would sour everything. He kept on taunting me that I was a free bird in a foreign land and that I had probably forgotten my 'poor', 'uncivilized' and 'incapable' husband who wasn't as 'great' as me. On seeing an innocent photograph I had sent him, he made a remark that I appeared to have forgotten my tradition and culture as my pallu was askew. I had no idea what the cause for his nastiness was. I was doing exactly what he had told me to and was only fulfilling his dream. But I had always found it difficult to figure out my husband. Sometimes I used to feel that he was way below me and pictured him at the bottom of a ladder while I was at the top. But then the next minute I reminded myself that he was the one who had given me access to the ladder in the first place. He was my husband and my teacher.

My health was severely affected by my stay there. After around two years in the USA, I had sudden spells when I used to feel very faint and get a high temperature. The cough never left me. By the end of the three years, my condition had worsened. I somehow scraped through the final exams. At the convocation where my husband was present and so was Pandita Ramabai, it was announced that I was the first woman from doctor of India and got a standing ovation for that! It was one of the most rewarding moments of my life.

Day by day I grew worse, and nothing was working. My husband then admitted me to the Women's hospital in Philadelphia. I was then diagnosed as having Tuberculosis but the disease hadn't yet reached my lungs. The doctors advised me to go back to India.

[... First person narrative ends here]

From the rest of Thakar's article we learn the following: Anandibai died on 26 February 26 1887, not long after her arrival in India and just a month shy of her 22nd birthday. She never managed to practice medicine in India.

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Wikipedia has a good entry on Dr. Anandibai Joshi. This opinion piece talks about the different ways in which Joshi's biographers have recounted her life. Here's a key quote: "Different Anandis fashioned by different authors — so much so that Kosambi muses candidly, 'has the *real* Anandibai Joshee eluded us?' "

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The first biography of Anandibai Joshi was penned by Caroline Healey Dall in 1888, just a year after Joshi's death. This book is available online, and Joshi's image, above, is from its cover. Right at the beginning of this book, Dall reproduces an entry from an album of Mrs. Carpenter, Joshi's host in the US; in it, Joshi answers a series of questions (you can view them here: page 1, page 2). Let me highlight three of them:

20. What epoch would you prefer to live in? The Present.

26. If not yourself, whom would you like to be? No one.

36. What is your aim? To be useful.


  1. madraskaari said...

    Hi Abi -- I too was seriously confused by this account in LD and wanted to dig up more facts.

    Particularly this section:

    "I didn't have much of a choice whether I liked to learn or not. He was my husband and I had to listen to what he said. I was terrified of him and the scoldings I would receive from him."

    makes her seem very much of a reluctant acheiver and you are left wondering about the acheivement itself.