As part of South Asian Heritage month, guest blogger Dr Theeba Krishnamoorthy researches the fascinating career of Dr Annie Wardlaw Jagannadham, the first Indian woman qualified to practice medicine in Britain.
Dr Kadambini Ganguli (1861–1923) BA, GBMC, LRCP, LRCS and LFPSG, was a woman of many firsts. She forged a space for herself in the strictly masculine spheres of universities, medicine and politics. She was one of the two first women graduates of India and the British Empire, along with Chandramukhi Bose. She also went onto become the first Indian woman physician to graduate and practice Western Medicine in India. The life of Kadambini takes us back to the period of British-ruled India. She was born in Bihar on 18 July 1861 to a Bengali family, who originated from the Barisal District of pre-partition India (modern day Bangladesh). Although she was fortunate to have been born and raised during the Bengali renaissance, a time of religious, social and educational reforms, these advancements were not necessarily inclusive of women.
Some reformers believed that the purpose of women’s education was to produce the perfect Hindu woman and wife - educated, but not too educated that she loses sight of her position in society. Such an education would avoid the sciences and maths, and stop short of a university education. However not all reformers felt the same way, including Kadambini’s father. With the support and guidance of her parents, Kadambini embarked upon a liberal education (inclusive of the sciences and maths) that journeyed her through Banga Mahila Vidyalay (Bengali Women's College) and Bethune School. Overcoming numerous obstacles, Kadambini Ganguli along with Chandramukhi Bose went onto achieving the Bachelor of Arts from the University of Calcutta* in 1883. In doing so, they became the first women graduates of India and the British Empire. After graduating, Kadambini married Dwarkanath Ganguli, her Bethune school mentor and a supporter of women’s reforms.
Image caption (above): Image from S. Chatterjee, R. Ray, & D.K. Chakraborty (2012), ‘Medical College Bengal - A Pioneer Over the Eras’, Indian Journal of Surgery, 75(5): 385-390. Signature from Licentiate Register of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (1893). Courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow Archives.
Despite being a married woman, Kadambini was keen to continue her education and pursue a career in medicine - another unusual venture for an Indian woman. In British India there was a growing need for women doctors to serve the local women. However, similar to Britain, British India denied the admission of women into their male-dominated medical institutions.
In 1875, Madras Medical College became the first institution to admit women students (mostly European), however resistance to the idea persisted across the nation. It was not until 1883, Kadambini made history by becoming the first woman admitted to Calcutta Medical College.
At Calcutta Medical College, Kadambini’s Western medical curriculum included theoretical and practical courses on medicine, surgery and midwifery. She undertook classes and clinical work there and at Calcutta Eden Hospital and at the college’s hospital and dispensary between 1883 and 1888 (see TQ schedule below). During this period she studied under a number of doctors including Dr John Martin Coates, Dr Robert Harvey and Dr RC Chandra.
During her time at Calcutta Medical College, Kadambini learnt to balance the role of wife, mother to her children and step-children, as well as being a medical student. After four years of studying, Kadambini appeared for her final exams in 1886. Despite excelling in nearly all her subjects, she failed to achieve her Bachelor of Medicine (MB) degree by only one mark in the subjects of materia medica and anatomy. These subjects were examined by Dr RC Chandra, a professor known to disagree with the idea of women in the medical field. Unable to challenge the exam outcome, Kadambini was awarded the less prestigious qualification of the Graduate of Bengal Medical College (GBMC), therefore becoming the first Indian woman to graduate from Western medicine in India. That same year in the United States, Anandibai Joshi became the first Indian woman to graduate abroad in Western medicine.
Word of Kadambini’s perseverance in her medical studies had reached Florence Nightingale, who went onto recommend Kadambini to Hariot Georgina Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, patron of many Indian hospitals. In 1888, Kadambini was appointed to the Lady Dufferin Hospital in Kolkata on a monthly salary of Rs.300. However Kadambini was denied the responsibility of a ward, which was the only way to gain clinical experience and skills. A medical role of that seniority was predominantly allocated to European women, with Indian women doctors working under them as assistants. Frustrated and angered by this injustice, Kadambini wrote a public letter to the local newspaper.
The difficulties Kadambini experienced as a doctor also extended into her community. For she was viewed and treated no more than an untrained midwife by the local people, who disregarded her medical education and training. However there were some orthodox Hindu men who viewed and feared Kadambini’s success, perceiving it as a direct threat to their masculinity. In 1891, the orthodox magazine Bangabasi indirectly called Kadambini a ‘whore’. Despite being married and a mother, identities that are respected within the Indian culture, they failed to protect her against this sexist abuse. Dwarkanath and Kadambini took the editor of Bangabasi, Mahesh Chandra Pal, to court and won. Mahesh was fined Rs.100 and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
In a society shaped by colonial and patriarchal oppression, Indian women professionals were rarely accorded the respect and attention their White or Indian male colleagues received. After several years of being treated as inferior to other doctors on the basis of race and gender, and the lack of an MB degree, Kadambini decided to pursue further medical qualifications in Britain. For she hoped that in acquiring a British qualification she would finally receive equal treatment in the workplace.
In 1893, Kadambini left her family in the care of her older sister and set sail for Britain across the black waters (kala pani), a Hindu taboo. She enrolled as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, just a year after Scottish Universities opened their doors to women. Her time in Edinburgh remains to be a mystery. Unlike Dr Anandibai Joshi who left behind an abundance of letters documenting her life the United States, Kadambini’s letters have not survived.
In July 1893 a few months after arriving in Edinburgh, Kadambini successfully passed her final exams and was awarded the Triple Qualification. She was admitted as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (Edinburgh), Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh) and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons (Glasgow). The Triple Qualification also entitled Dr Ganguli to place her name on the British Medical Register, three years after Dr Annie Jagannadham, the first Indian woman to join the register.
Having gained her colonially approved qualifications, Kadambini returned to Calcutta and was finally appointed the senior position she desired at the Lady Dufferin Hospital. Lady Dufferin herself wrote to Kadambini, expressing her support and reassurance to consider qualified Indian women doctors with favour. Kadambini also went onto to having a thriving private practice and many patients, including the women of the Nepalese royal family.
Her pioneering spirits extended beyond the medical world. She was passionate about politics and the nationalist movement at a time when women were not included in these male-dominated spaces. Kadambini made history by being among the first six women delegates at the fifth Indian National Congress session in 1889, and the first woman to speak on the platform in 1890. She also campaigned for women’s rights in a society that wilfully resisted change, e.g. by improving the working conditions of women miners in Bihar and Orissa.
Kadambini Ganguli led a remarkable life. She carried herself beyond the imposed limitations of a society governed by patriarchy and colonialism, and forged a path forward into the male- and White-dominated spaces for herself and other women, across time and space. In all that she achieved amidst the injustices of her time, Kadambini's life story stands as a testament of hope.
Dr Theeba Krishnamoorthy, guest blogger
* In 2001, the anglicised form of the city name ‘Calcutta’ was officially changed to ‘Kolkata’ to match Bengali pronunciation, but the university retains the earlier form in its name.
Sources used in writing this post:
South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) first took place in 2018 and runs from the 18th of July to the 17th of August each year.
SAHM seeks to commemorate, mark and celebrate South Asian cultures, histories, and communities.
The month seeks to understand the diverse heritage and cultures that continue to link the UK with South Asia.
South Asian culture has made a significant impact on Britain in various aspects, such as food, clothing, music, words, and the overall ambiance of our towns and cities.
It’s a beautiful display of the rich and proud South Asian heritage that has blended into the British way of life, contributing to the diversity of our nation. Observing South Asian Heritage Month provides us with an excellent chance to embrace and celebrate the history and identity of British South Asians.
It’s crucial to allow people to share their own stories, and this occasion offers an opportunity to showcase what being South Asian in the 21st century entails, while also reflecting on our past and how it has shaped us.