Anandi Gopal Joshi — The First Indian Woman Doctor

In the 19th century, almost all Indian women devoted their lives to household chores. In that day and age, Anandi Bai pushed the boundaries of what was conceivable by becoming the first woman doctor in India.

 

She was born in 1865 in Maharashtra. She belonged to a very conservative Brahmin Peshwa family. In those days it was important for a girl to get married before attaining puberty. She was married off to a widower, Gopal Rao Joshi, at the age of 9.  When they got married he was thrice her age.  However, he was very understanding and supportive. With her husband’s encouragement and persistence, she qualified for a medical degree in 1886 from the United States of America.

Gopal Rao Joshi played an important role in this by being a great inspiration to Mrs. Anandi Bai. Though just a postal clerk, he was a libertarian husband who encouraged his wife to pursue her studies. After losing their first born due to lack of medicines, he was eager to educate Anandi upon her request. She was 14 years old when she decided to study medicine, just 10 days after she had lost her child. In a patriarchal society, where women were expected to spend their life doing household chores, she proved what a woman could achieve if given an opportunity.

Image source – Wikipedia

Image source – Indian Academy of Sciences

At a point in time when education for women was considered unimportant and unnecessary, his liberal thinking and her determination were truly remarkable. By marrying her on condition that she should be willing to educate herself irrespective of the circumstances he showed incredible courage and character for that era.

 

He taught her English, Sanskrit and Marathi. He relocated to Calcutta to avoid interference from Anandi’s family in her studies. She successfully made the transition to becoming a thoughtful woman and a scholar. This change was possible after crossing many obstacles like repeated wrangling with her family and objections from her own parents. In this she was always backed by the iron will of Gopal Rao.

To finance her studies, Gopal Rao penned a letter to Royal Wilder, an American missionary, requesting monetary help for Anandi to study medical sciences in the USA. Wilder put forth a condition that the couple had to convert to Christianity in order to receive support for her education. Gopal and Anandi declined the proposal. Wilder published an article about them in a newspaper. A rich American lady, Mrs Theodicia Carpenter came across the article and was moved by her keenness. She offered support to Anandi for pursuing an education in medicine.

 

In the meanwhile, Anandi’s health declined steadily. She suffered from nonstop headaches, intermittent breathlessness and fever. Initially she refrained from travelling abroad due to her illness, but finally agreed at her husband’s insistence. She received her Medical degree from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania in 1886. She was only 19 when she graduated. No less a person than Queen Victoria sent her a message to congratulate her on her degree. Anandi finished her paper on obstetrics operations among early Hindus. Her Letter of Application stated

 

 “[The] determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends and caste ought to go a long way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came, i.e. to render to my poor suffering country women the professional medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and I must not fail. My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.” (Source)

 

By 1886 her health had failed and she experienced tuberculosis symptoms that were to snuff her life out ultimately. Bal Gangadhar Tilak himself sent a letter to Anandi stating that he understood her situation and was willing to donate one hundred rupees in order to support her. He also said as an editor he could contribute only to that extent.

 

In the same year, she returned to her home country to a splendid welcome. The native state of Kolhapur designated her as a physician in the women’s ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital.

 

She passed away on 26th February 1887 just before attaining the age of 22. After her death, her patron Mrs. Carpenter placed her ashes in New York in her family cemetery.

 

 India today has taken giant strides towards providing equal opportunities to women in every field. But this has happened after the struggle and sacrifice of many women who have fought long and hard at different levels to gain these rights. They have had to fight against the apathy of the law, the taboos of society, the opposition of relatives and even against their own immediate family to shatter stereotypes and finally leave their mark. The success and glory that women enjoy today is the result of the inspiration of these legendary women. And every woman who broke barriers has been able to do so because she received support from friends, mentors, family and even strangers to stand out in the crowd.

 

Her biography was written by Caroline Wells Healey Dall in 1888. Shrikrishna Janardan Joshi has written a novel, “Anandi Gopal”, in Marathi based on her life story. Doordarshan broadcast a Hindi serial, “Anandi Gopal”, based on her life. A play based on her life was also composed by Ram G. Joglekar. A Lucknow based non-governmental organization IRDS introduced the Anandibai Joshi Award in the medical field as a tribute to her pioneering achievements.

 

Gopal Rao was steadfast in his determination to empower his wife and support her education. He was undoubtedly an exceptional man of those times. Though Anandi Bai could not utilize her education professionally due to her unfortunate untimely death, she substantially empowered and motivated women in India. As a couple, they serve as a shining example to the modern generation!