‘Lady Doctors’

It was a Google Doodle of Rukhmabai Raut, a child bride who was not only one of India’s first divorcees but also a pathbreaking female doctor, that led London-based journalist and author Kavitha Rao down an enchanting rabbit hole from which emerged her book ‘Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine’. In an interview with Sunday Time, the author talks about the unlady-like hustles of the women who fought to study medicine.Did you choose to title the book ‘Lady Doctors’ ironically? Where did the term originate?

It’s unironical because that is what these women were called back then, when women doctors were an anomaly. The earliest mention I could find of this term was in the British Medical Journal in 1870, when lady doctors were called “a traitress to their sex.”

In cloistered, colonial India, what kind of labels did these women attract for their decision to pursue medicine?

Kadamabini Ganguly was called a whore, Rukhmabai Raut was called dissolute, and compared to an adulteress, a thief or a murderess. Haimabati Sen was threatened with death when she won a gold medal. Mary Poonen Lukose was criticised for her foreign education, and told that she needed to cultivate ‘Indian manners’


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Of the six Indian ‘lady doctors’ of 19th century India that your book focuses on, whose story made the most impact on you?

Probably Rukhmabai Raut because she walked away from a child marriage, spent years in court to divorce her husband, defied powerful conservatives, went to the UK to study, and eventually led a long and fulfilling life as a doctor in Rajkot and Surat. Even one of these would be a huge achievement. Combined, they are almost unbelievable.

Were the men in their lives allies or hindrances?

Nearly all the women were supported by their fathers to study. The husbands were sometimes allies, sometimes hindrances. Anandibai’s husband encouraged her to study but was also physically abusive. Haimabati’s husband did not object to her being a doctor but took all her earnings and occasionally hit her. On the other hand, Kadambini and Mary Poonen Lukose’s husbands are widely reported to have been supportive. In fact, most of the misogyny they faced was from their mothers and female relatives. Haimabati was discouraged from studying by her mother and aunts, as was Muthulakshmi.

Despite their foreign education, the women doctors had to earn the trust of patients in India. What lengths did they have to go to?

Kadambini had to go to the UK to get a British education, because people were reluctant to trust a doctor with an Indian education. Rukhmabai grabbed a pregnant sheep and delivered its lamb in her hospital to convince women to come for their deliveries. Mary Poonen Lukose only gained the trust of the community after she delivered the Travancore Rani’s babies.

Many of these women doctors had to work in the backdrop of famine and disease. What can they teach us about living with Covid-19?

I think Mary Poonen Lukose’s comments on smallpox vaccination are very revealing of how Covid will eventually have to be overcome, with immense sacrifice from the public. In 1925, Mary opposed a resolution in the Travancore Legislative Assembly, which sought to make smallpox vaccinations optional. She said, “Petty inconveniences and even risks have to be encountered by individuals for the sake of the greater good of the community as a whole.”

Do you think this women-can’t-do-science mentality still persists in India?

I only have anecdata about this, but I think women are still seen as less capable than men. Women doctors are still pushed into gynaeocology, for instance.

While reading their diaries and memoirs, what were the things that struck you?

The thing that struck me instantly was how advanced their views were. Even Anandibai, who outwardly played the part of the good Indian wife, displayed absolutely no fear about crossing the seas alone, at a time when women were completely dependent on their husbands. Indeed, she said, “If this life is so transitory, why depend on another?”

Did their sense of humour surprise you?

Haimabati’s sarcasm about her useless husband definitely surprised me. Particularly that line in her memoir, “My husband came home and immediately began to ride his high horse. He said, ‘Women are but thorns on the way of life, hindrances to spiritual quest”. An elderly lady told him off, “If you have decided to spend your life in spiritual pursuits, why did you marry?”

Would the six women doctors have laughed at the term ‘work-life balance’?

Probably yes! Most of them accepted that they would be both working and raising their families with very little help. But just because they did not know about the term, does not mean they had it easy. Muthulakshmi, for instance, wrote in a moment of frustration that women doctors were better off staying unmarried because of the tough balancing act.

Would you call all six of them feminists?

Certainly, they were all feminists because they all believed that women were as capable as men of being doctors. Before the concept of equal pay for equal work became accepted in India, Haimabati Sen wrote angrily about how she was paid less for her work than men. Rukhmabai wrote at length about how marriage was an institution that benefited only men, not women. I would describe their brand of feminism, overall, as radical for their time. Or indeed even for our times!

What can men take away from the book?

Often I find men think that women did not become doctors because they were not clever enough, scientific enough, or determined enough. I hope this book shows men that women were cleverer than them on occasion, but were denied education, independence and even medals!

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