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A brief biography
Kadambini Ganguly, India’s first female practising doctor
- “This young lady married after she made up her mind to be a doctor and has had one, if not two, children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in and did not miss a single lecture since,” wrote Florence Nightingale in a letter to a friend while inquiring gushingly about one ‘Mrs Ganguly’ in sexism-steeped India of 1888. Three years later, a Bengali newspaper would call the same Mrs Ganguly a whore.
- Women were seen as unﬁt for science, let alone medicine, when Kadambini Ganguly —one of India’s ﬁrst two women graduates —became a doctor after marrying her much-older progressive widower friend Dwarkanath Ganguly and securing a hard-won admission in the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) in 1883.
- Born in 1862 in Bihar’s Bhagalpur to a school principal named Brajkishore Basu who was part of the Brahmo-Samaj-led Bengali Renaissance, Kadambini studied in a gender-equality-propagating school started by her father along with his friend Durgamohan Das. As was the law at Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, she spoke English with her peers during school hours.
- After passing out of the school, Kadambini had to secure a special dispensation from the University of Calcutta to appear at the entrance examination. In the assigned separate room from the men, along with Sarla Das, she wrote the papers, missed the ﬁrst division by just one mark and startled the English vice-chancellor of Calcutta university by scoring second-highest marks in science.
- Her next alma mater, The Calcutta Female School—now renamed the Bethune School—became the Bethune College after it began to recruit new teachers exclusively to teach Kadambini college-level classes. Oxford had not yet allowed women to graduate when, in 1882, Kadambini—along with Bethune School’s future-ﬁrst-womanprincipal Chandramukhi Bose—became one of India’s ﬁrst two women graduates after ﬁnishing her BA.
- The distinction didn’t exactly open doors. The principal of Calcutta Medical College (CMC), R Harvey, was against female students and the Indian Medical Council backed his decision to refuse Kadambini admission. She would be a married woman by the time she was allowed to enter the CMC in 1883 following the intervention of Augustus Rivers Thompson, lieutenant general of Bengal, who argued in her favour and who foresaw, in newsprint, a “not so distant time when Calcutta hospitals shall be partly ofﬁcered by lady doctors”.
- Nearly all the women doctors and nurses in India at the time were European and thus alien to Indian customs and traditions. Anandibai Joshi—popularly cited as India’s ﬁrst woman doctor—had died soon after returning from the US with her medical degree in the late 19th century when British doctors were paid 450 while their Indian assistants earned 50.
- Convinced that a British degree would help her be treated on par with her white counterparts in India, Kadambini sailed to Edinburgh and returned with three diplomas in 1893. Even that didn’t help though. Once, after attending to a tricky childbirth where her expertise possibly saved the lives of both mother and child, Kadambini found herself being asked to eat her lunch with the maidservant and then to clear the area. “Kadambini’s daughter was in tears when she saw that all her mother’s learning would not prevent her from being called a ‘dai’,” writes Kavitha Rao in her book ‘Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine. ’
- Later, Kadambini—who had grown increasingly interested in political activism over time— made her presence felt at the sixth session of the Indian National Congress where she made a speech proposing Pherozeshah Mehta’s name for president in 1890. In the years following her husband’s demise in 1898, the mother of eight, stepped away from activism. Kadambini’s end came suddenly on October 3, 1923.
- Today, if a ward at Calcutta Medical College is named after this mother of eight who was India’s ﬁrst practising woman doctor, Kadambini’s legacy also got a hat-tip in a Bengali TV serial that showed a lady shocked by the sight of the ﬁgure at her door. “Where is the doctor,” the lady asks. “This is a woman. ”
Curated by Ketaki Desai and Sharmila Ganesan Ram. With inputs from Amulya Gopalakrishnan