Photo feature

Remarkable photos of 19th century Indian women in US medical school

Images of three Indian women who went to medical school in faraway America in the late 1800s.

I’ve been researching records related the history of hearing aids, but it’s easy to get side-tracked in the archive. Browsing through the photographic collection at the Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections, which holds a remarkable repository on women physicians from the 1850s to 1870s, I came across one image that piqued my interest.

The photo of the three physicians was a memento from the Dean’s reception at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, dated October 10, 1885. I have hardly come across sources from the late nineteenth-century of non-white women practicing medicine. So naturally, I started digging a bit into female Indian physicians, beginning with Dr. Anandi Gopal Joshi.

Joshi is thought to be the first Hindu woman to receive an education abroad and to obtain a medical degree. Born in 1865 in Kalyan, near Mumbai, she was married off when she was nine to 29-year-old postmaster named Gopal Vinayak Joshi, a widower. Gopal renamed Joshi, changing her birth name from Yamuna to Anandi (“the happy one”). He was also a supporter of women’s education and started teaching his young wife shortly after they got married. She eventually learned Sanskrit and English. The marriage was not completely ideal; there’s sources indicating that Gopal often abused his young wife to keep her focused on her education.

In the 1880s, with the help of a Philadelphia missionary, Joshi was sent to the United States to receive an education in medicine, a decision made after the tragic death of her son when she was 14. She enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then the first hospital for women; her thesis was titled Obstetrics among Aryan Hindoos.

Joshi’s letter to Alfred Jones, member of the Executive Committee of the Women’s College 1886. She writes for permission to attend the College, and for financial assistance.

Joshi earned her M.D. at the age of 21. In 1886, at her husband’s urging, she returned to India, where she took up a post at the Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur. She died a mere year later from tuberculosis.

I’m so fascinated by this story: a young woman, encouraged (if not forced) to educate herself, travels to a faraway land and studies medicine. A year after Joshi died, the feminist writer Caroline Wells Healy Dall wrote her biography, The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee, a Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai. A fictionalised account of Joshi’s life was also written, by SJ Joshi in 1962, Anandi Gopal. Originally written in Marathi, the novel was later adapted into an award-winning play by Ram G Joglekar.

Joshi wasn’t the only female who studied at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Gurubai Karmarkar (d.1932) was the second Indian woman to graduate from the college, in 1892. She eventually returned to Indian and worked at the American Marathi Mission in Bombay.

Gurubai Karmakar, 1891.

Photo dated 1881.

Dora Chatterjee was also a graduate from the Women’s College, graduating in 1901, being the third Indian women to do so. After graduation, she returned to Hoshyarpur, Punjab, where she worked for a Christian missionary.

Detail from a class photograph, 1901.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece that originally appeared on the blog From the Hands of Quacks. All images have been sourced from Drexel University College Archives & Special Collections.

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