The book “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions” by Nandini Patwardhan tells the story of India’s first woman doctor Dr. Anandibai Joshi, and how she went on to become the 1st Indian woman to receive a degree in western medicine through her remarkable grit, determination and relentless effort.
Though Anandi faced critics in India and skeptics in America, she also had many supporters who helped her in her journey. Her mentor was her husband Gopal, who tutored her and fostered her ambition. Her American champion was Theodocia Carpenter, a New Jersey housewife.
With her determination and grace, Anandi won the support of all—Indians, Americans, as well as British—who crossed her path. Three thousand supporters attended her 1886 graduation from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Using original letters, university archives, and newspaper accounts, the book draws a textured portrait of British India and post-Civil War America. It also explores the relationships that Indian, British and American individuals forged by bridging cultural, political, and class boundaries.
Read an excerpt from Nandini Patwardhan’s book “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions” below.
Anandi and Theodocia considered two medical colleges that served only women students: the Philadelphia-based Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Another option was the college of medicine in Boston which was a co-educational institution that specialized in homeopathy. All of these colleges were keen on admitting Anandi as a student. The primary reason they welcomed Anandi lay in the history of women’s higher education, and particularly medical training, in America.
Educating females through the high school level, in publicly funded schools, was already quite widespread in late-nineteenth-century America. However, women’s higher education, particularly the kind that led to a professional practice and commensurate prestige—law, medicine, and the church—was not at all commonplace.
In 1874 (less than a decade before Anandi’s arrival in America), Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, called coeducation,
a thoroughly wrong idea which is rapidly disappearing…… the stress could prove so severe that the women might fall ill and destroy their chances of good marriages; … a woman’s future was so different from a man’s that there was no point in educating them together.
Eliot also deplored the effect that women would have on their fellow male students. The men,
…might fall in love, which could produce disastrous, socially unequal marriages; women would have trouble keeping up with the academic pace and hold up instruction for the men.
Both reasons were grounded in prevalent ideas about the primacy of men’s interests and women’s more limited “appropriate sphere of influence and action,” i.e., the domestic sphere. Thus, any pursuit that compromised women’s commitment to their “natural environment”—such as education—could be justified only if it could extend their roles as caregivers and nurturers. As such, it was somewhat easier to make a case for empowering women to provide medical care to women and children.
However, there was an entire set of different objections when it came to training women to become doctors: women’s presence at the anatomy table and the resulting embarrassment that it might cause the men. When Elizabeth Blackwell was attending Geneva College in 1847, her professor asked that she remove herself from “any anatomy lab that might prove embarrassing for mixed company.” Indeed, just three decades before Anandi walked the gauntlet of jeers in Bombay, Dr. Blackwell faced very similar reactions while attending medical school in Geneva, New York.
I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.
It was experiences such as these that led to the establishment of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850. A few years later, Dr. Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. These colleges provided a haven wherein their female students could pursue medical studies without having their presence challenged or their aptitude and fortitude to study anatomy questioned. In these colleges, students were trained and mentored by women as well as men who supported their pursuit of a credentialed medical education.
Not surprisingly, this separate arrangement came at a price. Even two decades after the Woman’s Medical College was founded, and even though it had its own small hospital, “its meager resources … could not match the majestic surgical facilities or distinguished surgical faculties of the renowned major hospitals of Philadelphia.”
However, by 1869 the tide turned somewhat. After years of efforts, the college gained permission for its students to attend Saturday clinics on surgery at the larger Pennsylvania Hospital (also in Philadelphia). More importantly, the coarse and insulting reaction of the college’s male students, in which they “assailed the young ladies, as they passed out, with insolent and offensive language, and then followed them into the street, where the whole gang, with the fluency of long practice, joined in insulting them,” was met with criticism from the managers of the Hospital as well as by major newspapers in the Northeast. Indeed, just a year after this incident, August Gardner, a New York physician, published a mea culpa in Leslie’s Illustrated News:
A woman who feels an irresistible impulse to study medicine so strong as to overcome her natural timidity, or to be willing to take the obloquy and covert, if not open, insults from the world in general, and very often her own family and friends in particular—she will make a better doctor than a stupid lout.
Dr. Gardner could never have imagined that his words would one day provide an apt description of an Indian woman on the other side of the earth—a woman whose desire for a medical education had been burnished in the harsh crucible of orthodox religion and superstition on the one hand, and the loss of her baby on the other. When he wrote that the “great limitations of women come from society, and are not from essential inferiorities of the sex,” he challenged every reader who believed that their gender made women unfit for an existence equal to men. His words also indirectly exhorted women who held such aspirations to assert, and where necessary, prove, their intellectual equality with men.
Only too aware of their hard-won battles, the leaders of the women’s medical colleges welcomed every opportunity to shine a light on their successes. As Marie Mergler would write in 1896, “For with them it meant much more than the success or failure for the individual. It meant the failure or success of a grand cause.”
The aim of women’s medical colleges was not just to provide medical training to women, but also to solidify a woman’s right to be trained as a doctor and to practice medicine. Because women doctors were the primary providers of medical care to both women and the indigent, women’s medical colleges were also fighting on behalf of such patients.
And so, the colleges in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were eager to admit Anandi. Her high profile would attract favorable attention, and her command of the English language meant that she would be a wonderful spokesperson. Finally, both her biography—a citizen of British India, married at the age of ten, homeschooled by her husband—and her purpose—to provide medical care to women who had none—made her an exemplar of the mission of these colleges.
Anna Thoburn, with whom Anandi had become acquainted in Calcutta, was a recent graduate of the college in Philadelphia. She sent a letter to the dean, Rachel Bodley, alerting her to Anandi’s impending arrival and recommending her to the college.
She will be a great curiosity. No doubt the first Hindoo woman who has ever set foot on American soil. I trust my native land will deal kindly with her. . . . She is a bright little woman—speaks English fairly well-and writes it better than I do. . . . She will no doubt appear dull at first as she will find it difficult to understand but I think she will get on well after a time.
Interestingly, she mentioned Theodocia in the letter, albeit mischaracterizing her as a missionary and misunderstanding the nature of her relationship with Anandi.
Some Presbyterian Missionary lady has encouraged Mrs. Joshee and I think will help to provide means to meet her expenses. I judge from the letters she writes her that she knows the little woman well, and she seems to be a woman capable of judging wisely. (I mean the missionary lady.)
Theodocia also sent a letter to the dean:
I have in my care Mrs. Anandibai Joshee, a Hindoo lady of high caste. She has come to America to study medicine that she might serve her fellow country-women in the capacity of surgeon and physician. Hearing from many sources that the Female College of Pennsylvania is the best and the most thorough in its main points, and believing from some things that I have heard and seen in print that steps have already been taken to secure for my ward the advantages of your college, I write to ask you to please inform me what arrangements, if any, have been made; also, if Mrs. Joshee would need to attend lectures now before the close of this term?
She also offered to “begin her studies at home with me and continue them through the summer, taking up such as you deem necessary for the beginning of a thorough course.” A secondary purpose of this question was a desire to avoid “incurring the expense of a trip to Phil. before Fall,” for “her means are very limited and the ways to obtain the end is not yet clear.”
Theodocia then set up a friendly competition between Philadelphia and New York.
We are in correspondence with the Deans of several colleges and shall form plans for Mrs. Joshee with care and deliberation. Believing that you or other eminent Philadelphians had already taken an interest in her before her arrival, I feel willing and glad to respect that interest by asking your advice at the outset and what preparations if any have been made for her and what her advantages will be in going to Philadelphia rather than to New York?
Finally, she reiterated her personal commitment to this endeavor:
It would suit our convenience better to have her in the latter city, but we have her best good at heart and seek only that.
Now it was Dean Bodley’s turn to make as compelling a case as possible on Anandi’s behalf. She wrote to the bursar, Arthur Jones, enclosing Theodocia’s and Anna Thoburn’s letters, and mentioning the calls and letters that she had been receiving from reporters.
A half-dozen reporters of the city press, representing as many city papers have been calling upon me and writing to me in regard to her during the last month, so remarkable do they regard her coming to be.
She also mentioned a clipping from a missionary newsletter. Rev. and Mrs. Gracey had spent several years in India as missionaries of the Methodist church. This clipping provided an unbiased and glowing testimonial from a person who knew India but not Anandi.
The sacrifices this woman makes we here can scarcely appreciate. … That she breaks away from all her associations, social and religious, to seek advantages in a land among strangers, and with a people so unlike her own in all their habits and customs, shows remarkable force of character.
The last sentence in the account evoked universal sisterhood among women regardless of where they may live, as an aspect of Christian charity and kindness:
While in Calcutta before sailing, she was the recipient of much kind attention, and we bespeak for her here, in this Christian land, the sympathy and affection of all women who have at heart the uplifting of women in all countries.
In her note to Bursar Jones, Dean Bodley summarized her appeal for financial aid:
Would it be possible for your committee to perform the graceful act of awarding her a scholarship? This wd [sp] at once distance all the competing institutions and make her sojourn with us certain. Her talents and learning would immediately qualify her for a scholarship.
So great was the interest of the reporters and of the general public that Bodley felt certain that “money for her medical education could be speedily raised” by the public. However, her preference was that the college provide for Anandi’s education and, by so welcoming her, preclude her reliance on public largesse.
A final appeal was received by Bursar Jones from Anandi herself. She started her letter by stating the amount of money that she could afford to pay—seventy dollars in hand, plus about twenty that Gopal would be able to send each month. Next, she wrote about her educational background:
I have been once through English Grammar, have studied through Arithmetic in my own language, and as far as Division in English, and I am now pushing forward in this as fast as I can. I have read the histories of England, Rome, Greece, and India. I have learned to read and speak in seven languages—Marathi (my own), Sanscrit, Bengali, Gujarathi, Canari, Hindoostani, and English.
Given her “exceptional and peculiar” circumstances, she requested that the college be “obliging and merciful” even if she did not meet all of the entrance requirements. Just as present-day students write in their college application essays, she described the hurdles already overcome and her selfless higher purpose.
My health is good, and this with that determination which has brung me to your Country against the combined opposition of my friends & 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 countrywomen the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of, and which they would rather die for than accept at the hand of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and must not fail. … My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves, and I feel sure that the God who has me in his care will influence the many that can and should share in this good work, to lend me such aid and assistance as I may need. I ask nothing for myself, individually, but all that is necessary to fit me for my work I humbly crave at the door of your College, or any other that shall give me admittance.
The letters from Anandi and her supporters succeeded in their mission. Even though a student had to be between the ages of twenty and thirty to receive a scholarship, an exception was made for the eighteen-year-old Anandi. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania awarded Anandi a scholarship of six hundred dollars to cover the three-year program.
The biggest hurdle—paying for her education —was thus overcome. Anandi was finally ready to start the education for which she had been preparing almost her entire life.