women icons

The 19th-century women doctors of India whose pioneering work has been forgotten by history

Charlotte Ellaby and her peers changed the rules, when women were only considered fit to be nurses or midwives.

When Charlotte Ellaby arrived in Bombay in November 1884 to work as a Junior Medical Officer, she had no idea she was making history.

Among the first in her generation, a medical woman with a degree recognised on a par with male doctors, Ellaby had sailed eastwards to join the equally illustrious Edith Pechey, one of Britain’s first women doctors. In 1869, she and six other women made up the Edinburgh Seven, the first group of female undergraduate students to study medicine, or for that matter, any subject at a British university. In India, Pechey and Ellaby would collaborate for the next few years, first at a temporary establishment called the Jaffer Suleman dispensary (in Khetwadi, a part of Bombay now known as Girgaum), before moving to Cama Hospital, inaugurated in 1886 and meant specifically for women and children.

Pechey married Herbert Musgrave Phipson, a founder of the Bombay Natural History Society, in 1889. She lived in India for the next several years, committed to several women’s causes, sponsoring more medical women doctors from India. Pechey, to a large extent, was responsible for the campaign to finance the medical education of the young Rakhmabai – whose refusal to return to her husband and grant him conjugal rights had sparked the Age of Consent controversy in the mid-1880s.

Rakhmabai, a social reformer, went on to become the first practising female doctor in India.

Old Cama Hospital where Ellaby and Pechey worked in the 1880s. Credit: via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY
Old Cama Hospital where Ellaby and Pechey worked in the 1880s. Credit: via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY

Like Pechey, Ellaby was educated in Paris. Ellaby was born in 1854, in Cambridgeshire, England, and graduated in 1884. Her field of research was the subject of ophthalmology, which had in the past two decades been revolutionised. The acceptance of Joseph Lister’s pioneering antiseptic procedures had made surgery safer, and the invention of devices such as the ophthalmoscope by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1850, enabled physicians to view the “interior structure of the eye, especially the retina”. In 1880, Albrecht von Graefe crafted a unique knife set that helped the linear extraction of cataract.

Meanwhile, the Medical Fund for Women in India had been set up in 1883, initiated by the American businessman George Kittredge (who was partly responsible for the introduction of tramway services in Bombay), Shapurji Bengali and other prominent people from the Presidency. Earlier that year, the Welsh doctor Elizabeth Frances Hoggan had written in the Contemporary Review about the need to provide women doctors in India, as a necessary public service.

This need was compounded by an irony: medical education in most of Europe was then an exclusive male privilege, only a few institutions granted limited degrees to women. For the most part, women were denied admission to advance medical institutions. They were thought inferior and as far as medicine was concerned, considered suitable only for careers as midwives and nurses.

There was the case of James Barry, the celebrated surgeon who worked for the East India Company, serving in India and South Africa, only to be controversially outed as a woman named Margaret Ann Bulkley, after her death in 1865. For a long time, only France and Switzerland opened their doors to female doctors, drawing women from across Europe to study, something that historian Neville Bonner has called the “biggest professional migration” in the 19th century.

In 1883, to the clamour for more women in medicine and public service was added the imperial vision – that the needs of female subjects in Britain’s largest colony was important. Women living cloistered lives in the zenana, hidden away in sunless, airless rooms needed their own doctors as custom forbade their examination by male doctors. Even earlier, as Francois Bernier, the French traveller and doctor who had visited Aurangzeb’s India, had noted, a midwife or attendant narrated the symptoms of a sick female patient to the male doctor who stood veiled by a curtain.

Ellaby in Bombay

The Khetwadi dispensary in Bombay opened its doors to patients on July 7, 1884. That first week, there were so many patients that appointments were restricted to 100 every morning. Things eased up a bit when Ellaby joined Pechey in November. Ellaby also set up a separate ophthalmic section, arguably the first ever for women in India. She even travelled to Hyderabad on some medical missions.

Her other notable contribution in those early years was the donation of a flying fox preserved in spirit, the largest species of bat native to South and Southeast Asia, which she gifted to the Bombay Natural History Society. The fox is mentioned in the BNHS’ first journal, published in 1886, by its editors EH Aitken and RH Sterndale.

Ellaby returned to London to keep up with the latest developments in ophthalmology. In an era when women’s contributions were routinely erased, she was aware of medical trends and contributions, as evident in a long review essay she wrote in 1897 for the Indian Magazine and Review, published from London, following the publication of a book on Eastern medical science, by the Thakur Saheb of Gondal. Gondal was a princely state in the Kathiawar region, and its then ruler had studied medicine in Edinburgh.

Thakur of Gondal, Bhagvat Singh. Credit: Photographs from the Lafayette Studio Archive of the V&A, London/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY
Thakur of Gondal, Bhagvat Singh. Credit: Photographs from the Lafayette Studio Archive of the V&A, London/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY

Treating cataracts

Ellaby was familiar with the traditional way of treating cataract that Suśruta, the Indian surgeon who lived more than two millennia ago, had detailed in his long-adapted technique of “couching” – in effect, a method where the cataract, now ripe, would be pulled out by a needle. Though modified by later Arab and Chinese medical men, who used methods like suction, couching was always an immensely risky procedure. Indeed, cataract surgery was one of the major causes of death till some two centuries ago.

Couching for cataract. Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
Couching for cataract. Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Ellaby, for her part, must have used the intra-capsular method for cataract extraction, which had been introduced in the 1750s. It involved making limbal incisions in the cornea and removing the cataract infected lens. In England, Ellaby returned to work at the New Hospital, exclusively devoted to women, set up by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a physician and suffragist. Once again, she set up an eye department there. Her published work alludes to her skill as an eye surgeon. These detail her work in the treatment of retinitis and about the use of strychnine, a dangerous poison, which if carefully injected, could also aid muscular contraction in the eye.

Robert Henry Elliot, Ellaby’s contemporary in India who served in Madras, wrote a detailed work on the practice of couching. Elliot decried traditional medicine men as charlatans – of course they had no recourse to advanced instruments and remained ignorant of developments in antiseptic procedures. In the early 20th century, there were two British medical men in India, who won acclaim for their cataract procedures: Tristram Henry Holland, a missionary who worked for several years in the Punjab and Sindh, and Colonel Henry Smith, who is credited with the Smith-Indian method, where he used a muscle hook to break the thinner attachments in the affected eye, and then remove the cataract with limbal incisions.

One of Henry Smith’s assistants, by the name of Nur Ali, aided and did indeed perform a large part of the initial procedures on his own, as detailed in an American newspaper report when Smith visited the US to popularise his method in the early 20th century. But now, Nur Ali’s contribution, like Ellaby’s work, is only a footnote.

A return journey

New Hospital for Women in London (where Ellaby later worked). Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
New Hospital for Women in London (where Ellaby later worked). Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Ellaby remained committed to women’s education, joining Elizabeth Anderson and others in an appeal that the school of medicine’s library, at the University of London should allow women to access its resources. The pioneering woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji, who would travel to London a decade later, also faced a similar predicament when she was not allowed to take exams (though she could attend law classes) or even access the library, something her male peers could do with ease.

In the winter of 1894, Ellaby travelled back to India, her destination being Jamnagar. This was at the special request of an engineer, William McClelland, who was responsible for the construction of several bridges and a hospital in Jamnagar, then ruled by its Jamsahib, Vibhaji II Ranmalji. The maharani – one of Jamsahib’s more than 14 wives – had cataract in both her eyes and McClelland conveyed the ruler’s special request to Ellaby to have her perform the surgery.

Vibhaji was also known as the guardian of Ranjitsinhji, the cricketer, whom he had adopted to succeed him. But a son born to Vibhaji later in life succeeded him as ruler, when Vibhaji II died in late 1895. Ranjitsinhji succeeded as Jamsahib in 1906. Ellaby’s surgery on the maharani was successful, winning her great acclaim, as was reported in most newspapers of the time.

Ellaby returned to London in February 1895. The visit to India proved costly – Ellaby attributed her later ill-health to it. She continued practicing at the New Hospital for a decade more, living in Harley Street, the London quarter where most doctors had their establishments. In 1909, she died relatively young, at the age of 55. At the time of her death, she was also a lecturer in ophthalmic surgery at the London School for Medicine for Women, established in the 1870s – an institution from where Rakhmabai would graduate in 1894.

Edith Pechey-Phipson. Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
Edith Pechey-Phipson. Credit: via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
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