Emmeline da Cunha is considered to be Goa’s first female doctor. She completed her medical degree in Bombay in 1896, as the bubonic plague broke out, and began her career in the port of this major city of British colonial India. She continued her studies in Florence, Newcastle and London, specialising in Bacteriology and Tropical Medicine, during her brief, but intense, medical career. Her cosmopolitan and contradictory life journey allows us to reflect on the complex connections between gender, science and colonialism.

Inaugurated in 1845, Grant Medical College was the first Western medical college to be created in British India. It began accepting female students almost four decades later, in 1884, a few years before several European universities did so (for example, Edinburgh University in 1889). Its first female graduate was Freny Cama, a member of Bombay’s prosperous and progressive Parsi community who passed from the college in 1892.

Four years later, six women concluded their medical degree: Manak Turkhad, another woman from the Parsi community; four Britons; and Emmeline da Cunha, an Indian woman of Portuguese nationality, who was born in Panjim and raised in Bombay by Goan Catholic parents.

During her studies, Emmeline da Cunha won several university prizes – the Sir James Fergusson Scholarship (1890), the Lady Reay Medal, Bai Hirabai Petit Medal, Scholarship of Medical Women in India Fund and, in competition with male and female candidates, the Balkrishna Sudamji Prize in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (1893). Several historical records identify her as Goa’s first female doctor. This is probably true, even though statements about pioneers always run the risk being imprecise or inaccurate.

In 1896, the same year that Da Cunha and her colleagues graduated, there was an outbreak in one of Bombay’s slums that was identified by physician Acácio Gabriel Viegas (also of Goan descent) as the bubonic plague. There had been a prior outbreak in China, and, by the turn of the century, the plague had spread to many parts of the world, in what was considered to be the third plague pandemic in history.

The massive development of the shipping industry throughout the 19th century – from the invention of steam ships to the opening of Suez Canal in 1869 – and increased international movement of people and goods meant that port cities became especially vulnerable to the spread of disease: from Porto to Rio de Janeiro to Bombay (the gateway to India and the point of passage between Europe and Asia). At the start of the plague, Da Cunha was appointed the physician-inspector of the Port of Bombay, before she moved to Italy and then England to pursue her studies in bacteriology and tropical medicine.

An image from the album "The Bombay plague epidemic of 1896-1897: work of the Bombay Plague Committee", 1897. Credit: Capt. C Moss/Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence].

Diversity And Mobility

Several Indian historians have studied the entry of women into healthcare professions in different regions of India. For example, Sujata Mukherjee and Ambalika Guha have focused on Calcutta or Madras, while Mridula Ramanna has primarily studied Bombay. Their work is relatively recent. It was only in the 1970s – when female academics globally entered universities, libraries, archives and museums in force – that women began to be studied historically in a committed and in-depth manner. Women had been identified in the archives and documents, but they became part of recorded history only when present-day researchers sought them out and transformed them into a historiographical object.

In her article Women Physicians as Vital Intermediaries in Colonial Bombay, Ramanna identified the origins of all the women who graduated from Grant Medical College between 1892 and 1915. Thirty-one of them were Parsis; 17 were Indian Christians; eight were Hindus, and two were Jews.

That most of them came from the Parsi community was no accident. During this period, Parsis – of Iranian origin and practitioners of Zoroastrianism – were one of the most influential communities in Bombay. Straddling the worlds of trade, philanthropy and public intervention, Parsis assumed a hybrid identity in Bombay that was shaped by British colonists and the colonised population, which was primarily Hindu. Inspired by this cosmopolitan culture, several Parsi women decided to pursue academic careers.

The second biggest group of women physicians were Indian Christians – communities that at different times in history had been under Portuguese rule and converted to Christianity. Many other female graduates studied outside India. Britain, a colonial homeland, was one of the places they went. Another was Philadelphia, where several foreign women studied medicine in the 1880s, including Anandabai Joshee.

Anandabai Joshee (left), Kei Okami and Tabat M. Islambooly, students at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. Joshee was born in 1865 to a Hindu Brahmin family, near Bombay. Before leaving for the USA, she made a public presentation where she stated: “There is a growing need for Hindu female doctors in India, and I am willing to train as one”. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Who was Emmeline da Cunha?

Emelina Maria Antonieta da Cunha, as often occurred when people moved between Portuguese and British Indias, was born into the most privileged Goan community in Bombay, the Catholic Brahmins, who combined Catholicism with the Brahmin caste. To her community were available the privileges of belonging to the religion of the Portuguese governors as well as the highest echelon of the Indian caste system that perpetuated social and religious inequalities.

By this time, Bombay had a vast Christian community, including those who lived been living there before it passed from Portuguese to British rule. It was also home to a community of Goans, most of whom were Catholics, but some were Hindus from diverse social and caste backgrounds who moved to Bombay in the 19th century in search of study and work.

Emelina’s anglicised name was Emmeline da Cunha. She was the daughter of Ana Rita da Gama and physician-historian José Gerson da Cunha. She was born in Panjim in 1873 during one of her parents’ long stays in Goa. The couple was equally invested in the education of the son as of the two daughters. Emmeline da Cunha’s sister, Olívia, studied art in Florence after graduating from the University of Bombay.

Historical analysis has identified several patterns in the relationship between women in the fields of knowledge and creativity since the 16th century. One is the way in which the encouragement provided by their fathers – men – was decisive in enabling the daughters to pursue higher education or dedicate themselves to writing, to the arts, to science, as well as to the various professions that implied presence in the public area and remuneration. This seems to be the case with Emmeline da Cunha.

Her proud father, Gerson da Cunha wrote a letter to the Italian orientalist, Angelo de Gubernatis, in 1897, in which he remarked: “[My children] are all studying successfully and, thank God, have given me great pleasure and satisfaction. My oldest daughter is about to complete her medical course.” Several years before, in 1883, he had sent another letter from Bombay to Florence, in which he referred to how Emmeline, then 9 years old, had taken exams and been proposed for the “first prize in her class”. A few months later, he wrote again to the Italian specialist, and told him that his daughter was also “a natural pianist”, like her mother.

The correspondence between Gerson da Cunha and the Indian scholar De Gubernatis, stored in the manuscript section of the National Library of Florence, was the starting point for my book Other Orientalisms: India between Florence and Bombay (2009). It was in this manuscript and the collection of personal correspondence between the two men, available in a public institution, that I first discovered this woman’s name. I found the daughter after researching her father.

In my ongoing research into Gerson da Cunha and the production of knowledge about India by Indians in the second half of the 1800s, Emmeline da Cunha’s medical journey became a separate chapter, rather than a mere footnote – the place to which so many female names have been relegated. She is an exemplary case. To be able to discern historical traces of women, we must scrutinise the archives of men in a creative and committed way.

First Stop In Europe

Da Cunha continued her studies in three European cities. First in Florence, then Newcastle and finally in London. University archives are crucially important for this type of research, even more so in the cases of women who, after completing their studies, left few or no records in public documentation. While it was common for Indians to move to England to study – influenced by imperial itineraries – Emmeline da Cunha’s choice of Florence can only be explained by a very specific set of circumstances that are inseparable from the intellectual and friendly relations that her father maintained with the Italian city. Gerson da Cunha spent a long time in Italy in 1878 to present a conference at the International Congress of Orientalists in Florence and to pursue research in the Vatican’s historical archives in Rome.

When did Emmeline da Cunha leave for Europe? In 1896, Gerson da Cunha wrote a letter to the wife of Florence’s mayor, saying that the family would pass through the Tuscan city on its way to London. But this is also the year in which Emmeline da Cunha was due to be appointed as a medical inspector in the Port of Bombay. Did the outbreak of the bubonic plague change the family’s plans? The Times of India newspaper stated in 1898 that Da Cunha was still a “lady plague inspection doctor”. It was only in 1899 that it was possible to confirm that the family’s three women were all living in Florence.

Da Cunha’s final thesis, written in Italian and entitled Sulla esistenza di microrganismi pathogeni nella bocca and nel naso d’individui sani, is available online as part of a recent inventory of all theses written by women at the University of Florence from 1875, when women were allowed to attend Italian universities, until World War II, when their numbers significantly multiplied.

First page of Emmeline da Cunha’s final thesis in Bacteriology, University of Florence, Italy, 1899. Courtesy: Filipa Lowndes Vicente.

The letterheads from this period indicate two addresses: Via dei Banchi, n. 4 and Pensione Pendini, on Via Strozzi. Her father had been working in Bombay and he returned to Florence to present a conference at the International Congress of Orientalists in Rome in 1899. The three women of the family were all registered in the minutes as participants in the congress. They were not the only ones. The periodical I’llustrazione Italiana described Angelo de Gubernatis, the congress organiser and friend of the Da Cunha family, as the “feminist of the Event” because he invited so many members of the “gentler sex”.

After the congress, the family remained in Italy and Gerson da Cunha returned to India, promising to return soon after. But in 1900, while still in Bombay, he died of bubonic plague, aged 56. The newly widowed, Ana Rita, in a letter to Gubernatis, said: “Had my husband fulfilled the promise he made to us both to return to Rome after six months, he certainly would not have died, and we would all be happy here, living in beautiful Italy, this divine land, surrounded by good and kind friends such as you, my dear Count, and your excellent family.”

Medicine In Colonial Metropolis

What did Emmeline da Cunha do between completing her special studies in bacteriology in Florence and her enrolment in Newcastle University in Northern England in 1901? Did she return to India or stay in Europe? It is known that, in the first quarter of the 1901 academic year, she was enrolled in the College of Medicine in Newcastle. A year later, she took the final exams for her BSc degree in hygiene, and, on September 27, 1902, she obtained her degree. One of her written works earned her the Luke Armstrong Scholar Prize in Comparative Pathology.

The fact that she obtained an academic degree in just one year was common for those who, as in her case, had completed their previous studies. This was especially common for colonised persons who began their studies in Western medicine institutions created by the British empire in the dominated territories and then concluded – and thereby legitimised – their education in the United Kingdom.

These colonial scientific validation itineraries also took people to Portugual. Many young people preferred to study in Lisbon or Coimbra (or Bombay) than to study in the Medical School of Goa, which, as stated by Cristiana Bastos, would undermine their professional careers and their chances in public competitions.

Everything indicates that, after spending a year in the North of England, Da Cunha moved to London. “Miss Emmeline Da Cunha” is how her name appears in the historical archive of the London School of Tropical Medicine, where she studied in the first quarter of 1902. A group photo marks her passage through this prestigious school. It is easy to distinguish Da Cunha from the other students and professors. She is the only woman and the only person of non-European origin.

Emmeline da Cunha among her colleagues and professors at the London School of Tropical Medicine, London, 1902. Courtesy: Filipa Lowndes Vicente.

Two other written references – one private and one public – associate her with the university. Her university records indicate an address in Manchester, probably because her brother Gilberto was studying medicine there, and another in London.

Her passage through London left a more public mark – she took part in a scientific study and, alongside 13 colleagues, is listed as an author of an article in one of the most prestigious medical publications of the time, the British Medical Journal. The text, written on November 22, 1902, described the identification of the protozoan parasite – trypanosome – that caused sleeping sickness in humans. It was controversial and inspired an exchange in subsequent issues. At the time, the so-called “sleeping sickness”, which mortally affected (and continues to affect) thousands of Africans, was the subject of scientific research in various parts of the world, including Portugal.

In London, as in Lisbon, the word “tropical” was inseparable from the colonial sciences that developed in tandem with the interests of the European empires in Africa and Asia. David Arnold is one of the historians who has analysed the links between medicine and empire in India.

Bombay, A Scientific Laboratory

Da Cunha’s services as a medical inspector in the Port of Bombay “earned high praise in the report by the head of the port’s health service in 1897, and special thanks from the city government in 1897 and 1898, and from the Chairman of the Plague Committee in 1897”, as stated in a book about the Cunha family.

The bubonic plague was caused by the bacterium that had been identified two years earlier, in 1894, by the bacteriologist at the Institut Pasteur, Alexandre Yersin. It was in Hong Kong that Yersin gave his name to the bacterium that is transmitted through fleas, and which – it was then learned – had caused several deadly epidemics throughout history. The difference in the late 1800s was that the medical research in different countries was able to aspire to a vaccine.

Several scientific committees travelled to Bombay from Florence, as well as from Germany, Russia and Egypt, to study the plague in situ, demonstrating how the transnational medical circuits did not always coincide with the circuits of colonial relations. The strictly medical challenges facing the Bombay Plague Committee were inseparable from the social and economic ones. The sanitary measures imposed by the British government led to various forms of revolt by the indigenous populations.

Photographic surveys conducted in 1896-1897, mainly by British Captain C Moss and the Indian Shivshanker Narayen, chronicle the visits to the population made by public health officials and the famines that resulted from the plague, in what is considered to be the first biopolitical crisis.

One of 135 photographs from the album "Plague Visitation Bombay 1896-97". Most of the photos were taken by Captain C Moss of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Credit: C Moss/National Army Museum, 1992-08-74-15. Courtesy: Filipa Lowndes Vicente.

The Florentine commission, led by Alessandro Lustig, Director of the Laboratory of General Pathology at the Institute of Higher Studies, even installed a laboratory in Bombay in the summer of 1897. Its objective was to be able to “apply in practice [its] laboratory observations” vaccinating the population with the anti-bubonic serum designed in Florence.

Articles on the clinical trials carried out among the Indian population were published soon after, with less positive results than were desired. As Gyan Prakash remarked, “The colonies were laboratories of modernity that were too extensive and had little investment.” Was Da Cunha’s decision to study bacteriology in Florence in 1899, rather than in England, which was the most obvious place for students from British India, also related to her professional contacts in Bombay in the context of combatting the bubonic plague?

Family Life And Career

There are countless cases of women in the 19th and 20th centuries who terminated their careers or studies as soon as they got married or became mothers. This was also the case for Emmeline da Cunha. Her biography is divided into two distinct parts – before and after her marriage, wherein the latter was much longer (she died in 1972, on the eve of her 100th birthday).

During the first part of her life she enjoyed all the possibilities of scientific training that could possibly be accessed and a transgression of expectations in relation to most women who were her contemporaries. Even taking into account that some different geographical contexts meant greater opportunities for women in terms of learning and creativity – they were greater in Bombay than in Panjim, and greater in London than in Lisbon.

During the second part of her life there are no written sources. This is because there are usually no written documents that record the affections and experiences of private life. As a result, to write the history of women requires more creative and strenuous approaches to the archives. Her marriage in London in 1904, at the age of 31, to a British-trained Goan doctor is the threshold point between the two periods of her life.

From a book chapter to a footnote. Her education was just as complete and cosmopolitan, or even more so, than that of her husband, Francisco Xavier Santana da Costa. But her return to India as early as 1904 determined a different path for each – their genders led to very different career paths.

A house in Kaladevi Road, Bombay. The plain circles on the wall represent death from plague. The circles with a cross denote death reported from other maladies. Credit: Wellcome Trust/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence].

They initially settled in Goa, in Margão, where he worked as a doctor and director of a hospice. There is no more news about Emmeline. In 1908, they left for Bangalore, where Santana da Costa became a doctor and the director of the Hospital de Santa Marta. They had six children – three girls and three boys. She passed from being a doctor-scientist to a doctor’s wife and a mother. The way in which personal relationships intertwine with professional careers is much more decisive for women than for men.

The subjective and invisible dimensions – of family negotiations, domestic and affective contexts, of parents and husbands – affected women’s public and professional choices. We saw how Da Cunha’s father played a decisive role in her brief academic career. Did her husband play an equally significant role in her decision not to pursue her medical career?

Goan Bombay: Between Two Empires

And what about the geographic space? Did living in Goa or in Bombay, a large, cosmopolitan city, offer different possibilities for Goan women in the 1800s? Did British India offer an additional opportunity for the intellectual emancipation of women beyond the private sphere? I think so, and I have tried to demonstrate this in an article about Goan women who published works during this period.

The sophisticated press culture that existed in 19th century Goa – as studied in Rochelle Pinto’s book, Between Empires, Print and Politics in Goa and is the theme of the University of São Paulo’s Project, Pensando Goa, of which I am a member – was above all a masculine culture, wherein women’s knowledge was primarily expressed at home, whereas men’s knowledge was manifested in the many publications printed in the print shops of Pangim, Margão or Bastorá.

Emmeline da Cunha personifies the contradictions experienced by so many women during this historical period, both in India and in Europe. She took advantage of all the academic possibilities that began to open up for women at the turn of the century, and her talent and intelligence were documented in written records. But this promising prelude subsequently succumbed to the force of customs.

British India offered yet another advantage to Goans that affected both genders – the possibility of introducing greater ambiguity to their status as “colonised” persons, a category that was inevitably assigned to them, whether in Portuguese India, or in Portugal. In British India, but especially in the cosmopolitan city of Bombay in the late 19th century, the hybrid identity of Goans offered an element of emancipation. They were Indians of Portuguese nationality and for that reason they were not subject to the British government in the same way as the Indians of British India.

The relationship between Goans and the world of medicine also invalidates any easy opposition between Western European medicine on the one hand and Ayurvedic Indian medicine on the other. In the context of the Portuguese empire, from the 16th century, so-called “Western” medicine formed an intrinsic part of Goan culture, especially for those who converted to the Catholic religion and the Portuguese language. When Da Cunha’s father wrote a historical essay on the life and work of the Portuguese Jew Garcia de Orta, in Bombay, he also stated that the genealogy of 16th-century medicine and botany was inseparable from the history of India (and from his own training as a Goan).

But the potential advantages of this Goan community living in Bombay – in terms of its colonial identity in general as well as its greater openness to the female gender – also came at a price. In the interstices and borders between imperial contexts, the Goans of Bombay tended to remain outside the lens of observation of historians, both British and Portuguese, who were primarily focused on the axes between the colonies and the homelands.

But it is in these hybrid places, involving multiple geographies, languages and cultures, that we find people such as Emmeline da Cunha, a cosmopolitan woman both in terms of her transnational itineraries in the field of medicine and her own identity – which is also contradictory, especially in the way that she renounced her promising scientific career and disappeared from the historical records.

Filipa Lowndes Vicente is a historian at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.