Today when you open up www.google.com, you will see a green doodle of India’s one of the earliest female physicians – Anandi Gopal Joshi. But what’s her story that needs to be told and celebrated?
She was the first woman of Indian origin to study and graduate with a two-year diploma in medicine in the United States. She is also believed to be the first Indian woman to set foot on American soil.
Joshi was born Yamuna, in Kalyan in present-day Maharashtra, to a Brahmin family. Her family had been landlords in Kalyan but had lost their economic wealth. As it was pretty comman practice at that time, Yamuna was married to Gopalrao Joshi at the age of nine. He was widower almost twenty years older to her. After marriage, her husband renamed her Anandi. He was a liberal thinker and supported education for women, which was not very prevailing at the time. Gopalrao regarded learning English as more logical than learning Sanskrit. Noticing Anandibai’s interest, he helped her receive an education and learn English.
At the age of fourteen, Anandibai gave birth to a boy, but the child lived only for ten days because the medical care necessary for his survival was unavailable. This situation proved to be a turning point in Anandibai’s life, and inspired her to become a physician.
While the Joshi couple was in Calcutta, Anandibai’s health was declining. She suffered from weakness, constant headaches, occasional fever, and sometimes breathlessness. Theodicia sent her medicines from America, without results. In 1883, Gopalrao was transferred to Serampore, and he decided to send Anandibai by herself to America for her medical studies despite her poor health. Though apprehensive, Gopalrao convinced her to set an example for other women by pursuing higher education.
A physician couple named Thorborn suggested that Anandibai apply to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. On learning of Anandibai’s plans to pursue higher education in the West, orthodox Hindu society censured her very strongly. Many Christians supported her decision, but they wanted her to convert to Christianity.
Anandibai addressed the community at Serampore College Hall, explaining her decision to go to America and obtain a medical degree. She discussed the persecution she and her husband had endured. She stressed the need for Hindu female doctors in India, and talked about her goal of opening a medical college for women in India. She also pledged that she would not convert to Christianity. Her speech received publicity, and financial contributions started pouring in from all over India.
Anandibai traveled to New York from Calcutta by ship, chaperoned by two female English acquaintances of the Thorborns. In New York, Theodicia Carpenter received her in June 1883. Anandibai wrote to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, asking to be admitted to their medical program, which was the second women’s medical program in the world. Rachel Bodley, the dean of the college, enrolled her.
Anandibai began her medical education at age 19. In America, her declining health worsened because of the cold weather and unfamiliar diet. She contracted tuberculosis. Nevertheless, she graduated with an MD on 11 March 1886; the topic of her thesis was “Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindus”. On her graduation, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message.
In late 1886, Anandibai returned to India, receiving a grand welcome. The princely state of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital.
Anandibai died because of tuberculosis early the next year on 26 February 1887 before turning 22. Her death was mourned throughout India. Her ashes were sent to Theodicia Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Doordarshan, an Indian public service broadcaster aired a Hindi series based on her life, called “Anandi Gopal” and directed by Kamlakar Sarang.
Shrikrishna Janardan Joshi wrote a fictionalized account of her life in his Marathi novel Anandi Gopal, which was adapted into a play of the same name by Ram G. Joglekar.
Marathi writer Dr. Anjali Kirtane has extensively researched the life of Dr. Anandibai Joshi and has written a Marathi book titled ‘Dr. Anandibai Joshi, Kaal ani Kartutva’ (meaning “Dr. Anandibai Joshi, her times and accomplishments”) published by Majestic Prakashan, Mumbai. The book contains very rare photographs of Dr. Anandibai Joshi.
The Institute for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences (IRDS), a non-governmental organization from Lucknow, has been awarding the Anandibai Joshi Award for Medicine in reverence for her early contributions to the cause of advancing medical science in India.
In addition, the Government of Maharashtra has established a fellowship in her name for young women working on women’s health.