One would expect Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose – six of India’s first women physicians – to be household names. Had they been men, we are told, their stories might be taught in schools. Roads and bridges might have been named after them. As it turns out, they descended into relative obscurity at the end of their truly remarkable lives. Their stories and subsequent erasure from public memory are the subjects of Kavitha Rao’s newest book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine.

The book is structured as a series of free-standing biographical chapters, one for each of the physicians included. Anandibai Joshi, earliest, beloved of the establishment if only after her death, is first; her chapter is titled “The Good Wife”. Kadambini Ganguly, mother to eight, appears under “The Working Mom”. Rukhmabai Raut, a fearless lower caste woman who makes history by divorcing the husband she was promised to as a child, is “The Rule Breaker”.

Haimabati Sen, the best chronicled among her contemporaries because of her frank Bengali autobiography, is “The Fighter”. Muthulakshmi Reddy, founder of the Adayar Cancer Institute and a legislator besides, is “The Lawmaker”. Finally, Mary Poonen Lukose has a chapter titled, quite simply, “The Surgeon General”, in honour of being India’s first female surgeon general in 1938. That achievement is even more singular, we are told, because the first female surgeon general in the United States would not be appointed until a full 52 years later, in 1990.

Fighting off marriage

These are women with exceptional achievements. A certain type of biography might have chosen to focus on them at the moments they attained those very pinnacles. An emphasis on individual exceptionalism might be expected, with all blemishes airbrushed into a congratulatory glow.

Happily, this is not the approach Rao embraces. What the reader gets here – chapter after chapter, life after life – is a series of close-up portraits of the young girls who aspire to be doctors, the paths they feel compelled to take, and the forces that line up with, and against, them. Rao’s wide-angled lens includes not details of family dilemmas and conflicts arising from these girls’ aspirations, but also the greater world of pre-Independence India where child marriage and girls’ education are hotly contested topics.

The juxtaposition of intimate individual portraits against the broad canvas of history results in a richly textured narrative with plenty of dramatic tension. That it features familiar historical figures in cameo roles is an unexpected pleasure. In some cases, it is also instructive.

For instance, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, noted freedom fighter, emerges in this narrative as a staunch defender of the all-pervasive patriarchy of the time. His diatribes against women physicians like Rukhmabai Raut, often in personal and insulting tones, in his Marathi and English newspapers are detailed for us.

Florence Nightingale, a fierce opponent of women in medicine, is another surprise. While Nightingale did write a letter of recommendation for Kadambini Ganguly in her later years, we see Tilak uphold his support for child marriage and opposition to girls’ education till the end of his life.

History, as we’ve all come to realise, depends on who’s telling the stories. Nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of child marriage. Not a newspaper headline or abstract concern for these girls, it is a primary hurdle that each must overcome before her journey can even begin. While Rao highlights the broader arguments made for and against the practice, she also details with commendable restraint the horror that child marriages were.

From the announcement of Anandibai’s pregnancy and loss of a child at “barely thirteen”, to Haimabati’s truly horrifying first person account of being a nine-year-old married to a man in his forties, we are shown the real cost that girls and their bodies bore in the name of religion and tradition. What is as instructive is the time and the number of attempts it took for the practice to be legislated against, even when public opinion was turning against it.

The child marriage restraint act was to be passed in 1929 partly thanks to the efforts of Muthulakshmi Reddy, almost fifty years after Anandibai’s pregnancy, and four decades after Rukhmabai Raut’s attempt to free herself from the man she was married to in infancy. The minimum age for marriage for boys would be raised to eighteen, and to fourteen for girls, two whole years below what the Women’s National Congress demanded.

Misogyny and misses

If the struggles around child marriage belong to the past, the women’s early struggles in the workplace sound positively modern. There is unequal pay and a workplace hierarchy that puts these women below both men and white women. Caste lurks in the background, compounding the disadvantage of gender. There is harassment, sexual and otherwise. Domestic tasks and child rearing are primarily women’s responsibilities, even when spouses are supportive.

There are glimpses of the internalised misogyny that women exhibit when forced to compete for scarce resources. There are also supportive spouses and other male allies, families and sisterhood that make these journeys possible. Present day women doctors might also find resonance and inspiration in that compulsion, so effectively rendered that these women become healers despite all that is arrayed against them.

As an aside, it should be noted that not every lady doctor of significance is included, as the author freely acknowledges. And yet, I suspect readers will turn the pages hoping to see a favourite mentioned, as so many are. Mine was Ida Scudder.

An India-born child of American missionaries, she would return to India in 1900 after studying medicine in America to embark on an enterprise radical for her time – starting a medical college that only admitted women. We know that institution today as the Christian Medical College, Vellore. Her absence from these pages was my own personal disappointment with this expansive book that otherwise argues so persuasively against erasure.

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine is indeed an eloquent argument for women being the keepers of their own histories. Detailed, extensively researched, told with sensitivity and nuance, it will nevertheless be remembered for delivering that distinct pleasure – of a richly satisfying and compelling read.

Priya Balasubramanian is a California based physician and writer, whose debut novel is titled The Alchemy of Secrets. She can be found here on Twitter and here on the web.

Lady Doctors

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, Kavitha Rao, Westland.