“Start by starting” – Meryl Streep
Indian women have an altogether different history when it comes to creating benchmarks and doing something extraordinary. For ages, women have stopped themselves, or have been stopped by others, due to many reasons. However, there have been a few exceptions when women dared to break their cocoons and created a change in society and opened ways for generations to follow.
One such woman was Anandi Gopal Joshi, who became India’s first lady to qualify as a doctor from the USA in 1886.
Born in 1865 in an extremely orthodox Brahmin family in Maharashtra, a 9-year-old girl got married to a widower who was almost thrice her age. She later became the first Indian woman to qualify as a doctor. Even though she died at the very young age of 21, she opened the gates for many young women in India who wanted to do much more than devoting their entire life to household chores.
Gopalrao Joshi, Anandi’s liberal husband, always stood by his wife and acted as her biggest inspiration. At the age of 14, Anandi lost her first child due to unavailability of medical resources during the time of delivery. It was at that juncture when she decided to become a doctor. At that time, Gopalrao was determined to educate his wife and stood up in her support.
At a time when women’s education wasn’t taken seriously, Gopalrao appeared as a great exception. He had married Anandi on the condition that he should be permitted to educate the girl and that she should be willing to read and write.
Gopalrao started teaching Anandi how to read and write Marathi, English, and Sanskrit. He also transferred to Calcutta to avoid the direct interference of Anandi’s parents in her education. Gopalrao was so worried about her education that one day when he found Anandi helping her grandmother in the kitchen, wasting her time in cooking instead of studying, he beat her with a bamboo stick.
Anandi gradually turned into a learned woman. The major changes in her life took place in the face of stiff opposition from her parents, frequent bickering in the family and the stubborn attitude of her husband.
In 1880, he sent a letter to Royal Wilder, a well-known American missionary. In the letter he stated his wife’s keenness to study medicine in America and asked if he could get any help.
Wilder extended his help by writing about it in a local paper. Meanwhile, Theodicia Carpenter, a rich American from New Jersey, saw the articles and offered to help Anandi, as she was impressed by the earnestness and keenness of the lady to study medicine. However, things did not go too smoothly for Anandi. Her health constantly declined as the 19-year-old started studying medicine at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now known as Drexel University College of Medicine). She got her M.D. in 1886. On her graduation, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. She completed her thesis on obstetric practices among the ancient Hindus.
On February 26, 1887, a month before turning 22, India lost an exceptional woman, who despite all odds became the first Indian woman to become a doctor on the American mainland. Her ashes were sent to Mrs. Carpenter, her host in America, who placed them in her family cemetery near New York.
Caroline Wells wrote Anandibai’s biography in 1888. Doordarshan aired a Hindi serial named ‘Anandi Gopal’ based on Anandibai’s life. Shrikrishna Janardan Joshi wrote a fictionalized account of Anandibai’s life in his Marathi novel ‘Anandi Gopal’. (The novel has been translated in an abridged form in English by Asha Damle.) It has also been adapted into a play of the same name by Ram G. Joglekar.