The first women physicians across the SAARC region- The beginning of an important chapter in modern history
By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai
During my recent deputation at the SAARC Cultural Centre as a Culture Specialist (Research) in Colombo (Sri Lanka), I was visiting the Joseph Fraser Hospital, very close to my office in Colombo 7. The expansive hospital premises, with their manicured lawns and colonial buildings were both soothing and grand for the eyes..
As I sat waiting for the doctor to arrive, I was informed about the history of the hospital and the important role that it played for nearly a century in the treatment of women. The conversation veered towards the beginning of modern medicine across the subcontinent and the contributions of the very first women physicians there.
I remembered reading long ago, about May Ratnayeke- the second medical student from the then Ceylon and the very first woman physician in the island. She contributed immensely to gynaecology and obstetrics in the country. Ratnayeke had succeeded two determined young women- who had the courage to become the very first Medical graduates from Sri Lanka. This was in the last decade of 19th century. The women were, Henrietta Keyt and Evelyn Davidson. who were admitted as the first female students at the Ceylon Medical College.
More than a century later, this stands as an important chapter in the history of medicine in Sri Lanka. Their path was arduous. In the latter part of the 19th century, two women, Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Joshi, paved the way to the opening of medical education to women. This resulted in the Medical College in Kolkata agreeing to admitting women for the first time.
David Kopf of the Department of History at the University of Minnesota had mentioned Kadambini Ganguly in his book (The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, 1979, p- 125) as “Kadambini”. She was described as the most accomplished and liberated Brahmo woman of her time. Ganguli’s case was hardly typical even among the more emancipated Brahmo and Christian women in contemporary Bengali society. Her ability to rise above dire circumstances and to realize her potential as a human being made her a prize attraction to Sadharan Brahmos dedicated ideologically to the liberation of Bengal’s women.
Born on July 18, 1861 in Bhagalpur in Bihar, Kadambini was the daughter of Brahmo reformer Braja Kishore Basu. The family originally hailed from Chandsi in Barisal, now in Bangladesh. A brilliant student, Kadambini was admitted to what later became Bethune College in Kolkata from where she graduated in 1883, along with Chandramukhi Basu. They became the first female students to graduate not only in India but in the entire British Empire. She later went on to become the very first MA (Master of Arts) female graduate as well.
It was at Bethune School that Kadambini met Dwarakanath Ganguly, 17 years her senior, an ardent supporter of the Brahmo Samaj and women’s emancipation. Dwarakanath went on to play an important role throughout the life of Kadambini, encouraging her in several ways.
After her graduation, as Kadambini decided to pursue medical studies and Dwarakanath fought for her rights as the Calcutta Medical College had never before admitted women students. Finally, in 1884, Kadambini became the first woman to get admitted to the Calcutta Medical College. She got married to Dwarakanath Ganguly in 1883. The marriage was scorned by many, as Dwarakanath was 39 at the time and a widower too. Kadambini’s entry intothe Medical College was equally troublesome. The decision was met with severe opposition from various fraternities, including significant members of the conservative Hindu community and even some of the prominent teachers in the college.
She failed her final exams by one mark as a particular examiner was opposed to women studying medicine. He had failed her on purpose. It was only later on that the college gave her a special degree which permitted her to practise medicine. A couple of others wanting a medical education had the same problems as Kadambini. Anandi Gopal Joshi and Abala Bose did pass the entrance examination, but were refused admission to the Calcutta Medical College. Bose went to Madras (now Chennai) to pursue her studies in medicine, but never graduated.
There is some confusion about who is the first female physician in India. Is it Anandi Gopal Joshi or Kadambini Ganguly? While Kadambini received her medical degree from India, Anandi went onto receive her MB degree from Women’s Medical College, Pennsylvania in 1886. Thus, Kadambini was the first female practitioner of Western medicine in India while Anandi was the first woman to receive a medical degree in Western medicine from the West.
Anandi, was married to Gopalrao from Maharashtra. She was highly encouraged by her husband to continue her medical studies in the US but was also severely admonished by the conservative society for her wish to travel to America for higher studies. She was appointed a resident physician at Albert Edward Hospital at Kolhapur upon her return from her USA, but sadly passed away from tuberculosis in 1887, within a year of her return to India.
Kadambini’s hurdles continued even after her graduation and intensified once she started her practice as a doctor. She was severely vilified by a periodical, Bangabasi. Kadambini had the courage to take the editor, Mahesh Pal, to court for libel and the editor was justly sentenced for six months’ term in prison.
Public criticism and abuse actually motivated Kadambini to pursue higher studies in medicine abroad. She went on to pursue diplomas from Britain in 1893, especially the Licentiate of the College of Physicians (LRCP) from Edinburgh, Licentiate of the College of Surgeons (LRCS) from Glasgow, and Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons (LFPS) from Dublin.
Upon her return from England, she was taken in as a senior doctor at the prestigious Lady Dufferin Hospital in Kolkata – a place where she was looked down upon earlier by her British colleague due to the lack of a formal degree. She also continued her private practice alongside. This hardly got any response before she went to England, bloomed on her return. Very soon, she was forced to leave her hospital job for private practice.
Kadambini rose to fame with her diligent work. She was often called in by royal families for treatment. She helped Nepal’s Queen Mother recover in 1895-96. Kadambini went on to create a space for herself within the Indian National Congress, which never allowed women’s participation before. In the 1890 session of the INC in Calcutta, Kadambini gave a lecture in English, becoming the first woman to do so. Along with her husband, Kadambini went on to condemn the treatment of tea garden workers in Assam and the coal-miners in Bihar and Odisha. Suffering from high blood pressure, Kadambini passed away in 1923, aged 63.
Jamini Sen had acquired her LMS and MB from Calcutta Medical College in 1894 at the age of 25. Geraldine Forbes mentioned in her book Women in Colonial India- Essays on Politics, Medicine and Historiography (p-113-114) that she was the only Bengali girl in her batch. She won a distinction in her 4th year with a first in Materia Medica. Jamini remained unmarried all her life. She contributed immensely towards medicine. She spent a major part of her life in Nepal where she worked at the newly found Female Wing of the Bir Hospital and also attended to the Nepal Royal Family.
Jamini had moved to Nepal in 1899 on Kadambini Ganguly’s recommendation and remained there for ten years. Though little is known about her work at the Bir Hospital, she was a favourite of the Queen, who insisted that she should stay back in Nepal. Jamini did return to Calcutta, but only after the demise of the Queen Mother.
Sharmita Roy in her Women Doctor’s Masterful Manoeuverings: Colonial Bengal, late 19th and early 20th Centuries says that these doctors made no distinction between their patients on the basis of caste. But they diligently observed religious practices and rituals when they entered the houses of their patients. They thus received a warm welcome into the inner quarters of their patients’ houses.
About two decades from the time Kadambini and Anandi graduated, Alice de Boer created history in Sri Lanka, encouraging the work of May Ratnayeke. Belonging to the Dutch-Burgher community, Alice went onto become the very first woman physician in the island country. She began as an assistant to Dr. Mary Nona Fysh, MB, London, who was the Medical Officer-in-charge of the Lady Havelock Hospital for Women. Mary was appointed to her post in 1899 and Alice became her assistant, along with the Matron of the Hospital, M.E. Richardson, and Winifred Nell, the House Surgeon. Surprisingly, very little is known about the life and work of Alice. Nevertheless, her life connects to that of Dr. May Ratnayeke at the Lady Havelock Hospital.
May Ratnayeke was born in 1892 in Sri Lanka in Kandy and was one of seven siblings. She went on to pursue her medical studies at the Ceylon Medical College in Colombo and graduated in 1916. But she was refused a position at the Lady Havelock Hospital as there was no vacancy for a woman doctor.
The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science (p-1076), edited jointly by Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey and Margaret Rossiter mentions an interesting episode to connect the lives of Alice and May. May Ratnayeke went on to work at the American Mission Hospital in Jaffna, and then moved into the Lady Havelock Hospital as Alice de Boer had created a position for her as Assistant Female Medical Officer in the Outpatient Department. This also provided her enough time for Private Practice twice a week.
In 1925, she became a fellow at the Royal Free Hospital for Women and within a couple of years she was to have a secure place in the same hospital which had shunned her once. She took over the Female Outpatient Department in Lady Havelock Hospital by 1927, thanks to Alice de Boer. In 1927, May Ratnayeke took over from Alice de Boer as the Medical Officer of the female Outpatient Department in Lady Havelock Hospital and also took over her private patients.
She got married in the same year and went on to become a fellow at the University of Edinburgh Medical School between 1932-33. After this, she was promoted as Chief Surgeon and joined the faculty at the medical school of the University of Ceylon. In the 1930s, May contributed immensely through articles on gynaecology and obstetrics in various international medical journals. She passed away in 1988.
The Ceylon Administrative Reports of 1891 (A15) speaks of Henrietta Keyt and Evelyn Davidson. Dolerine Brohier in her book Dr Alice de Boer and some pioneer Burgher women doctors mentions that in 1892, the Ceylon Medial College situated in Colombo opened its doors to women. The Ceylon Examiner in 1892 also mentioned Keyt and Davidson creating history in the college. Both Keyt and Davidson further encouraged women to enter medicine. They were followed by many significant women physicians like Winifred Nell, Claribel Van Dort, Rachel Christoffelsz, Ursula Van Rooyen, Sylvia Ebert, among others. Both Keyt and Davidson were from the Dutch-Burgher community as Alice. The Ceylon Administrative Reports speak of specific steps adopted by the government as a result of these new admissions-“in anticipation of the admission of female students”…“ a separate Dissecting Room for females and separate tutors and a reading room”.
Anahita Ratebzad’s was the first woman doctor in Afghanistan and was also elected as a member of the Afghan Parliament in the New Democracy era of 1964-73. Anthony Hyman in “Afghanistan Under Society Domination, 1964-91” that Anahita was the head and founder of the Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women (DOAW) in 1964. She was also the sole female member of the PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) Politburo, till she was forced to retire in 1986 after Babrak Karmal’s fall from power.
She was an articulate and forceful spokesperson for the regime. Both within her country and abroad she was well-known for her work. She was strong enough, through her words and actions to convince people of the value of the Non-Aligned Movement and the progressive PDPA regime.
Ratebzad had a nursing degree from the State University of Michigan, School of Nursing from 1950-1954. Later in 1962, she graduated from the very first batch of the Kabul University’s Medical School. At that time, the university allowed women to be enrolled. Ratebzad also was the first Afghan woman to represent the country on an international stage, at the Asian Women’s Conference in Ceylon in 1957. It is important to mention that Ratebzad also led a team of female nurses in 1957 to Kabul’s Aliabad Hospital to look after male patients when veiling became optional during the tenure of Prime Minister Daud Khan.
This incident, followed by other events, soon saw Ratebzad being confronted by various issues. Her political career witnessed a fall. She had to flee to India in 1992 and remain under the protection of the Indian Government. In 1995, she left for Sofia, Bulgaria and a year later, she sought political asylum in Lunen, Germany and settled there. She died of kidney failure at the age of 82 and her remains were taken back to Afghanistan and buried in Kabul’s Shohada-e-Sa’alehin
In 1969 Dr. Harku Norbu, who was trained in Calcutta and was originally from Kalimpong in India, arrived in Bhutan. She had already married to her classmate- Dr. Jigme Norbu. The couple received Bhutanese citizenship from the King in 1976 and served at the JDW Hospital, Thimpu as Superintendent, Jigme from 1978 to 82 and Harku from 90 to 92. Alex Mckay in his Their Footprints Remain: Biomedical Beginnings Across the Indo-Tibetan Frontier says that Harku is still remembered for her contribution to maternity care and gynaecology in the country.
(The featured image at the top is that of Kadambini Ganguli)