On the third floor of the Kelkar Museum in Pune, in the corner of the room where articles of clothing are displayed, is a quilt. Presented to the museum by ‘Wrangler’ Paranjape, this quilt is possibly the only physical article known to have been in the possession of the remarkable Anandibai Joshee (1865-87).
The image on the right is from a photograph I took a few years ago when a friend told me about its existence. The description provided at the display says that the quilt was a community effort by Anandibai’s friends to mark her return to India. As one can see, it contains scraps of cloth that must have formed part of everyday objects and clothing- it was difficult to not be moved- one irregular piece has mirrorwork , while another contains the name of her husband, embroidered in what must surely be her hand. I have not been able to find much about this in what has been written about Anandibai’s life, both in the popular press as well as in scholarly journals. As things go, maybe quilts are not that important.
But as one of the first Indian woman to be trained in western science, her story is iconic and inspirational, and in its own way as remarkable and as tragic as that of Ramanujan. She was the first Indian woman to get a medical degree, in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Upon her return to India where she hoped to practice, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 22.
Commenting on her life, the sociologist Meera Kosambi writes: Anandibai Joshee was a true pioneer…. she was the first Indian woman to qualify as a medical doctor. She was also the first Maharashtrian woman to leave these shores for higher studies abroad, at the young age of eighteen.
In March 1886, when she received an American medical degree, she was barely twenty-one — an astonishing achievement in an era that refused even simple literacy to most Indian women! Anandibai chose a medical career because she wanted to serve other women who had inadequate health care. She defended this choice publicly and against heavy odds. Her personal life, too, was a continuous struggle on many fronts. Given the dramatic and eventful nature of her life, it is difficult to believe that she died so tragically young, just before her twenty- second birthday. [She was] an intelligent woman who was dispassionately perceptive of herself and her society — one who had independent views on contemporary gender issues. She was fearless in pointing out the obstacles to women’s education in India, and yet was firmly anchored to an Indian cultural and nationalistic identity. Anandibai was not merely India’s first woman doctor: she was also a feminist and a nationalist at a time when women were a rarity in the public sphere. And though she was not a scientist in the proper sense of the term, Anandibai wrote and researched in the field of public health/ epidemiology while still a medical student.
As has often been underscored, there are multiple identities that each of us carries, and Anandibai’s life, short though it was, was a patchwork quilt, not unlike that with which this post begins. Married young, she learned to read and write, not just Marathi, but 6 other languages including English. She she had a child at the age of 14 and upon losing that child due to inadequate healthcare, she decided to become a doctor. A letter written by her in 1883 gives a glimpse into her determination and strength of character. It is not unlike letters that reach similar offices even today…
Dear Sir, she says, I beg to ask, if upon any terms pecuniarily consistent with my means, I may be allowed to enter the Women’s Medical College of Pa. for a thorough course of study. I have with me seventy dollars, and my husband expects to send me twenty dollars per month less the cost of sending.
I was eighteen years of age last March.
I am not quoting the entire letter which can be seen in the archives of Drexel University, in their collection on Women Physicians, but the arguments she makes find an echo even today!
Though I may not meet in all points, the requirements for entering College, I trust that as my case is exceptional and peculiar your people will be merciful & obliging. My health is good, and this, with that determination which has brought me to your country against the combined opposition of my friends & caste ought to go along way towards helping me to carry out the purpose for which I came i.e. is to render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of, and which they would rather die for than accept at the hands of a male physician. The voice of humanity is with me and I 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.
I’ve included a piece on Anandibai’s in Lilavati’s Daughters, a collection of essays on and by women scientists that I co-edited some years ago. Her story while sad and complex is compelling, and a perpetual testimony to the value of higher education, and to the importance of a higher cause.