Anandibai Joshi was India’s first woman doctor. With the support of her husband, who tended to beat her into realizing his vision for her, she flouted caste rules and went across the ocean to study. A conservative at heart, she adhered to ancient traditions and her religious beliefs indicating a fierceness of spirit that makes it clear that her achievements were her own. And in her gentle way, she spoke out against the tyranny women were subjected too in the domestic sphere and with heartfelt passion insisted that society would benefit from the contribution of its daughters.
Kadambini Ganguly was a working mother, who was the poster girl of the progressive Brahmo Samaj and enjoyed the support of an understanding spouse. Yet, this mother of eight who was the first to practice as a doctor was branded a whore by a conservative paper. The fiery Rukhmabai Raut dared to walk away from a child marriage, refusing to live with her husband, braving the courts and societal censure levied by the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak to pursue her love of learning. Haimabati Sen, widowed at a tender age and cast aside by all, endured poverty and every manner of hardship to make something of herself.
Muthulakshmi Reddy, a legend in the South left behind an incredible legacy. She fought a valiant battle to win women the right to vote, abolish child marriage and the Devadasi system and embarked on a number of social welfare schemes that led to the establishment of the monumental Adyar Cancer Institute and Avvai Home for forsaken and destitute girls which continues her excellent work to this day.
Mary Poonen Lukose, the first Surgeon General and trailblazer’s exemplary work saw the foundation of the health care system and high literacy percentage Kerala can rightly take pride in. While India has no dearth of heroes whose praises are sung on a daily basis with umpteen statues and monuments raised to commemorate their deeds, it is shocking that this legion of extraordinary gentlewomen has been relegated to the forgotten nooks and crannies of history. Rao deserves a medal for her painstaking efforts to scour through the scanty material available on their lives and deeds to reconstruct their magnificent deeds and phenomenal achievements. Thanks to her efforts, memorable portraits of the lady doctors emerge and with a deft touch, Rao also highlights many of the problems pertaining to caste, domestic abuse, and gendered discrimination women face to this day.
Modern women will definitely empathize with the struggles endured by the founding mothers of medicine in India, particularly with regard to the harassment they faced, lack of faith in their abilities, being forced to give up hard won honors to soothe ruffled male egos, and walking that tight rope balancing their duties on the personal and professional front which usually called for Herculean effort on their part. It is sad that the more things change the more they remain the same, but thanks to the stupendous six, women will never lack for inspiration to spread their wings, head to the stratosphere and whatever lies beyond.
This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express