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Anandi Gopal Joshi — the first Indian woman to study western medicine, sponsored by Tilak

Anandi Joshi wanted to work for women 'who would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician.' She got letters from Queen Victoria & Tilak.

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It was the death of her newborn son that spurred 21-year-old Anandi Gopal Joshi to receive a degree from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, becoming India’s first woman to go abroad to study medicine. The incident was a turning point for Anandi, who was married off at the age of nine. Her son, who was born when she was 14, did not survive more than ten days due to lack of medical care.

At a public gathering in 1883, at the Serampore College Hall in Calcutta, an 18-year-old Anandi made her case to go to America to study medicine. Explaining the importance of an Indian woman going abroad to study, she said: “Both Europeans and ‘Natives’ are naturally averse to expose themselves in cases of emergency to treatment by doctors of the other sex. In my humble opinion, there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one.”

Anandi was widely recognised by not just her peers but also freedom fighter and editor of Kesari, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. “I know how in the face of all the difficulties you went to a foreign country and acquired knowledge with such diligence. You are one of the greatest women of our modern era. It came to my knowledge that you need money desperately. I am a newspaper editor. I do not have a large income. Even then I wish to give you one hundred rupees,” Tilak wrote to Anandi.

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Battling stigma

Born as ‘Yamuna Joshi’ in Maharashtra on 31 March 1865, her name was changed to ‘Anandi’ by her husband Gopal, a postmaster who was also a widower, and thrice Anandi’s age. Not only did he encourage her to learn English, Marathi and Sanskrit, he also supported her to go abroad to study once he was transferred from Alibaug to Calcutta.

It was in Calcutta (Serampore) that Anandi wrote a moving admissions application to the Superintendent of the Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel College). It was also in 1880 that Gopal sent a letter to Royal Wilder, an American missionary, seeking financial support in securing his wife’s admission as well as employment for himself. Wilder wrote back saying he could help them on the condition that they converted to Christianity. The couple refused.

They also received brickbats in India. Crossing the sea to go to a foreign land was considered a sin for orthodox caste Hindus. Many people made unsolicited remarks, threw cow dung at their house and even landed up outside Gopal’s office.

Aware that her qualifications were not enough to secure admission into the college, she urged the Medical College of Pennsylvania to make an exception keeping in mind her purpose – “to render to my poor suffering country’s women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician.”

Though Wilder refused to offer Anandi any financial aid, he published her letter in the Princeton Missionary Review, which was read by one Theodocia Carpenter, who exchanged many letters with Anandi and even offered to accommodate her in the United States. At the age of 19, Anandi made the four-month journey to New York on her own and had Carpenter as her local guardian there.

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Letter from Queen Victoria

Rachel Bodley, then Dean of the medical college, was moved by Anandi’s struggles and offered her a scholarship of $600 for three years. She graduated with an MD on 11 March 1886 and submitted her dissertation titled – ‘Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos’.

“I am proud to say that today should be recorded in golden letters in the annals of this college. We have the first Indian woman who is honouring this college by acquiring a degree in medicine. [She] has the honour to be the very first woman doctor of India,” said the president of the college during Anandi’s graduation ceremony as she received a standing ovation.

During her time in medical school, Anandi was also classmates with Kei Okami and Sabat Islambouli. Both were also among the first women to be doctors of their respective countries – Japan and Syria.

Upon her graduation, Bodley wrote to Queen Victoria who also congratulated Anandi. The dean also received a letter from the princely state of Kolhapur, wishing to appoint Anandi as the physician in charge of the women’s ward at the Albert Edward Hospital. Anandi could, if she wished, also instruct female students to make them general practitioners. However, while leaving for India, she contracted tuberculosis, and when she returned before resuming her duties in Kolhapur, she passed away a month before her 22nd birthday in 1887.

As part of her speech in Calcutta, just before leaving for the US, Anandi spoke against desisting from duty because one feared failure. “The meanest are those who never attempt anything for fear of failure. Those who begin, and are disheartened by the first obstacles, come next; but those who begin, and persevere through failure and obstacles, are those who win.”

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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