This woman in 1883 had the best answer to the question of why a girl would want to be a doctor

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Anandabai Joshi
Dr. Joshi
Image: Drexel University Archives

Why would an Indian woman go so far away for medical school?

Because it was the best way to serve her country.

That was the gist of the answer given by Anandibai Joshi—in 1883.

Before a packed house in Bengal’s Serampore College, with an audience that included the American Consul General, Joshi declared her intention: “I go to America because I wish to study medicine,“ she said, speaking in English before the College Hall. “Ladies both European and Native 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.”

She was 18 years old and her decision came at a high cost. The townsfolk disapproved of an upper-caste Brahmin woman crossing the forbidden “black waters” and created scenes at the post office where her husband Gopal Rao Joshi worked. Progressive beyond his time, Gopal had encouraged his wife to become a physician when their infant son died years earlier for lack of medical attention.

I first came upon Joshi’s story when I did a book review of Lilavati’s Daughters, an anthology of essays about women scientists. Back in the 19th century, going to the US alone for an education must have been a formidable task. These days, some elements are easier—and yet the questions persist, namely from pesky neighbors and relatives. Joshi’s story resonated with me because a young woman had once taken the stage specifically to formulate answers to such questions. Perhaps her responses will inspire some young ladies who are leaving to join universities in the US this fall semester.

Back in Joshi’s time, women interested in medicine were encouraged to become midwives; they could enroll in a course to be doctors in Chennai, but male instructors grudgingly and often incompletely imparted lessons. It would have been easier to convert to Christianity and become a doctor.

Joshi felt stuck. She felt she could not live in India and go to school in any part of the country as an upper-caste woman. “A convert who wears an English dress is not much stared at. Native Christian ladies are free from the opposition and public scandal which Hindu ladies like myself have to meet within and without the zenana,” she says. Toward her, she recounted, people made rude remarks and gestures. They even threw stones. She and her husband, happy as Hindus with no intention of converting, sought the help of Presbyterian missionaries to go abroad so Joshi could get an education.

The editor of Missionary Review published a request from them asking for help to go to America and gain admission to medical college in the journal with his own views on their stance. Unwittingly, this eased Joshi’s passage out of India. Flipping through a back issue of the magazine at her dentist’s office, New Jersey resident Theodocia Carpenter chanced upon his article ridiculing a young Hindu woman’s desire to become a physician. She wrote offering words of encouragement; a friendship ensued. Three years later, when Joshi arrived in New York without a formal letter of admission, Carpenter, her adopted “aunt”, took her home.

Applying for admission to medical college was hardly the arduous process it is today. From her host’s home, Joshi wrote a letter to an official at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. This college (founded in 1850 and now part of Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia) was the world’s first women’s medical college and attracted candidates from many countries. In her application letter, Joshi stated her credentials – she had studied English, arithmetic and history and spoke seven languages – but knew this might be inadequate for entering college. She asked them to make an exception and consider her purpose which was “to render to my poor suffering country 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.”

She duly gained admission.

Early in the semester, once she was the only student in class who stayed through a lecture-cum-demonstration of an autopsy. The instructor dissected the cadaver of an infant; Joshi was not squeamish.

When she received her degree in medicine in 1886, the dean wrote of her accomplishment to Queen Victoria, Empress of India. Around the same time, the dean too received a letter from the princely Indian state of Kolhapur expressing a wish to appoint their alumna as physician-in-charge of the women’s wards at their Albert Edward Hospital. Joshi could, if she wished, also instruct female students to make them general practitioners.

With this offer, she should have returned home in triumph, but she was handed a diagnosis: tuberculosis. She contracted the affliction before she left America, which worsened in its frigid winters and her own vegetarian diet. A month short of her 22nd birthday, she died in her mother’s arms in India. On Carpenter’s request, Joshi sent his wife’s ashes to America.

In a cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York, a headstone summarizes the life of Anandibai Joshi M.D. (1865-1887): First Brahmin Woman to Leave India for an Education. Today, female physicians serve in clinics all over India and instruct medical students of both sexes. Indeed, Joshi remains an inspiration to Indian women who wish to go abroad, get a higher education, and qualify for a career. Of their choice.