by - A.Vasantha, Freelace Writer
First of July is celebrated as the Doctor’s Day in India. This day has been chosen to pay homage to doctor Bidhan Chandra Roy and doctors like him who devoted their lives to the upliftment of the poor and the needy. Roy was, an eminent physician, and a dedicated social worker.
The story of Indian women’s struggle to enter the medical profession reflects their courage, determination and dedication to a noble cause. Unlike the women in western countries Indian women did not have to fight the laws or discrimination by the state to enter this profession. Opposition came mainly from the society of that time; a society steeped in ancient traditions with no scope for women to act or think independently The environment was hostile to a woman to step out of the home, let alone take up a career.
Missionaries pave the way
When the British rulers opened their hospitals in India, the attendance of women was almost negligible because of the purdah (veil) observed by women in many parts of India. Since there was no woman on the hospital staff, women resented being treated by men and stayed from hospitals. The plight of women during confinement owing to lack of medical attendance and the large-scale infant mortality disturbed many ‘zenana’(women) missionaries, who decided to do something to mitigate the sufferings of these women.
The task of women missionaries was not easy. They had to face the ignorance and prejudices of Indian women, work without proper instruments and insufficient supportive help and above all their own inadequate medical knowledge.
The first qualified medical woman to arrive in India was Miss Clara Swain of U.S.A. who reached Rae Bareily on 2nd January 1870. Soon a stream of missionaries, started pouring into India. Their main concern was training of nurses and mid-wives and hospital administration. They introduced hospital nurses into Indian homes, persuaded Indian women to go to hospitals for delivery and took part in other social service activities. Two outstanding medical missionaries, Edith Mary Brown(1864-1956) and Ida Sophia Scudder(1870-1960) will ever remain in the collective consciousness of the nation for the legacy they have left behind to humanity. The Christian Medical College and Brown Memorial hospital at Ludhiana and the Christian Medical College at Vellore stand testimony to their work.
In the meantime two contemporary Indian women created history by breaking the social barriers to become doctors. Both were Maharashtrians and were victims of child marriage. Anandibai Joshi was married at the age of ten to a widower almost twenty years senior to her. She became a mother at the age of fourteen but unfortunately the child lived only for ten days. A grief stricken Anandi resolved to become a doctor and help other women. Rakhmabai’s tale is some what different. She was not fortunate enough to have a supportive husband like Anandibai. Married at the age of ten without her consent she rebelled against the tradition. She matured into a highly esteemed doctor and rendered invaluable service during the plague in the Bombay Presidency. She was a pioneer of red cross activity in India and it was mainly through her that medical aid reached the interior parts of that Presidency.
Men support women’s cause
Higher education and training for women came through as a result of the efforts of a few enlightened men. In 1872, Edward Balfour, the Surgeon General in Madras started an agitation with the education department for admission of women to the medical course, but he was successful only partially as the Director of Public Instruction considered this move as entirely premature and did not recommend admission of women to medical college. Three years later Balfour could get them admitted to the Certificate course. Six years later the first woman to be admitted was Mary Scharlieb, wife of a Barrister. She took up the mid-wife’s training at the Government Maternity Hospital in Madras but found the training very inadequate. The Kasturba hospital owes its inception to her.
In the Calcutta Presidency, the Calcutta Medical College threw its doors open to women in 1880 and one Kadambini Ganguly became its first graduate.
In the Bombay Presidency, George T. Kittredge, an American business resident fought for medical education for women. He was not happy with the inferior training provided to women and observed “I am convinced that for success in India, woman must be recognized as the equals of men in medical care.”
Medical Funds come to Aid
George T. Kittredge along with one Sorabjee Shapurji Bengalee organized a fund called the Medical Women for India Fund. Also, the Lady Dufferin fund created in 1885 gave tremendous impetus to entry of women into the profession. Both the funds were set up with the major objective of bringing medical women from England, arranging for medical education of women in India and opening hospitals to be staffed by women.
March towards professionalism
The founding of the Association of Medical Women in India in 1907 under the Presidentship of Dr. A.M. Benson, the Medical Officer at Cama Hospital at Bombay was an initial step in the professionalisation of women medicos. It was this association which agitated for the creation of Women’s Medical Service (WMS) in 1914 on the lines of Indian Medical Service (IMS). Regrettably the WMS was abolished along with IMS soon after Independence.
Hilda Mary Lazarus was the first Indian woman to be appointed to WMS. She became Chief Medical Officer in 1943 and held the post till her retirement in 1947.
Undoubtedly the woman doctor of early 20th century was Muthulakshmi Reddy. She entered into the medical world like a storm and initiated many reforms through legislation like medical inspection of girls in schools and colleges, suppression of immoral trafficking in women & children etc,. She made history when she sought to liberate devadasis from the tyranny of tradition. The Avvai Rural Medical Service and Cancer Research Institute at Chennai are her gifts to humanity. She balanced her role as a mother, wife and a doctor so perfectly that she is still held as a role model by many.
Though late entrants by world standards women are now entering the medical profession on equal footing with men. No longer are the super speciality areas,the preserve of men. Everyday a new male bastion is broken and women try to prove that they are in no way inferior to men. However the contributions of the women pioneers in medicine in India cannot be evaluated in terms of the present day parameters. As Joshua Jhirad the first Woman Superintendent of Cama Hospital observed “It was the idea and urge to serve needy women who could otherwise have gone without treatment and suffered silently that attracted most of us to take up medicine.”