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The (Erased) Histories of Women Doctors in India

India's pioneering women doctors have made it to a new book by Kavitha Rao and even a Google Doodle, but the ground reality remains that there are no hospitals or medical colleges named after women doctors in India.

By Shalini Mullick

It was in August of 1994 that I joined one of the most prestigious colleges in India, the Lady Hardinge Medical college in Delhi. A college that would impart medical education exclusively to women was a rarity. Yet, the legendary institute never felt like an oddity; such was its stature and fame.

That summer, like my course mates, I was armed with the exuberance of youth and the confidence of having found my place in the sun. The four and a half years of rigorous study and tough examinations did not stop us from making the most of our college experience, threading together the most memorable moments into strings of memories and forming lifelong cherished friendships.  The intensive one-year hands-on training that followed was the best possible start for the career we were embarking on.

At the cusp of a new millennium, I was finally a doctor licensed to practise medicine. This was followed by a three-year training in pathology, the study of disease. For doctors, the oft repeated dictum, “The exam is over. The learning continues forever,” becomes a motto. I relocated to Bangalore where I continued learning, teaching and practising at St John’s Medical College. Since then, I have practised at a variety of Institutes.

Yet, when a few years ago, I briefly read about Anandibai Joshi, it was a revelation. I also came across the names of Rukhmabai Raut and Kadambini Ganguly who has been honoured by Google in a ‘Google Doodle’ today on her birth anniversary. But I remained unfamiliar with the stories, and struggles, of these pioneers in medical education in India.

A recent book, Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine (Tranquebar) by Kavitha Rao chronicles the journeys of these doctors, and three others: Muthulakshmi Reddy, Haimabati Sen and Mary Poonen Lukose. The book had me engrossed, and embarrassed. Embarrassed about my privilege of never having faced any discrimination on account of being a woman in my life. And my ignorance despite the pedigree of having many doctors in our family, both my parents included.

Shalini Mullick as a student at Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi

Practising medicine for almost 25 years and having my circle peppered with doctors of all ages, I have had the insider’s view of medicine. Add to that having a renowned surgeon and teacher of medicine for a father, and you get a unique vantage into a profession that is the aspiration of many.

Yet, I had been unaware of these women who forged ahead in the face of oppression, discrimination, without role models or support. My training and journey had been different from that of these women. Walking each day down the hallowed portals of an institute from which more than 200 women doctors from graduate each year was something that I had appreciated and taken for granted at the same time.

I had never imagined that gender could come in the way of my dreams. I had never stopped to learn about the women whose struggles had made it possible either; that too only 150 years ago. Sharing my thoughts with a few friends, I discovered that most were as unaware as I was. The irony was not lost on us.

My alma mater, Lady Hardinge Medical college is named after the wife of a British Viceroy, who was passionate about medical education for women. A century old, two hospitals (Sucheta Kriplani Hospital and the Kalawati Saran Children hospital) on its campus are named after women, but not women doctors. As a child I lived in the campus of another medical college, where my father was faculty: the Maulana Azad Medical College. This too is a conglomerate of hospitals, none of which was named after women, or doctors.

Shalini Mullick (far left) at Lady Hardinge Medical College with actor Nafisa Ali (in sari) and other students

I was intrigued. A cursory look at the list of medical colleges in our country showed that most were named after freedom fighters, educationists, politicians, and the corporate trusts that had established them. The names mostly were of men, or wives of famous men. There was a smattering of religious gurus, seers and deities too.

Kerala desisted from this trend, with colleges identified by their location. It was in West Bengal that two prominent doctors, Nil Ratan Sarkar and RG Kar, had colleges named after them. I found women’s names in the Kalpana Chawla Medical College (named after the famed astronaut) and the Phulo Jhano Murmu Medical College (named after the unsung tribals who revolted against British rule in the late 19th century).

Where were the women doctors? The ones who steamrolled the system into opening up medical education for women? Who fought oppression, caste, and patriarchy to be able to practise medicine? Who made it so easy and effortless for people like me to follow my dreams?

Their names and stories are missing from the institutes that they worked in, the colleges that train thousands of doctors, and in the collective psyche of medical students graduating each year.

How was this history of women’s education, emancipation and triumph erased? This is a history that needs to be unearthed and retold. Not just as a narrative of medicine, but also of feminism.

Dr Shalini Mullick is a practising doctor based in Gurugram specialising in pulmonary pathology, and a keen reader-turned-writer, who writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction. 

19 comments on “The (Erased) Histories of Women Doctors in India

  1. Pingback: The (Erased) Histories of Women Doctors in India — eShe – SacredCircleforWomen

  2. Great work for shining light on this! You are right we have been part of the privileged few. It never dawned on us the all the wonder women who came before us and on whose strong shoulders we today stand on. We need to give these quiet super heroes the limelight they deserve. I hope you will follow up this piece by bringing forth their stories one rebel woman at a time!


  3. Alka Sethi

    Beautifully written ! These are facts of life! Specially during our times .


  4. Neha gauri

    I remember my grandfather once saying that if you are a girl you should become a doctor and an engineer if you are a boy. thank you for bringing awareness about the struggels that woman faced in this field and continue to face in so many ways with the biases and cultural mindset. beautifully written!


  5. Dr Gurdipak Wadhawan

    Very well written.This article has left a strong urge to know our women doctors of the bygone era. their struggles rising above discriminations , always endevouring to be better than their male counterparts . Very interesting and thought provoking article


  6. Pallavi Purwar

    Privilege comes in many forms and so does the lack of it. For some women the struggle in the medical profession has been juggling the work life balance, for others a matter of overworked without credit and there are countless others who have chosen specialities based on gender rather than choice. However, the worst in my view has been the unnecessary need to prove equivalence especially in certain specialities. When patients call you sister instead of doctor it hurts but when your teachers and mentors treat you as incompetent based on your gender especially in the early stages of your career, it affects both your mental health and your performance as a good clinician.

    Being a doctor is not easy in itself but the need to do everything 100 times better or faster to prove equivalence sometimes makes you succumb to the pressure and sometimes makes you the best in what you do.
    The need to hide your physiological symptoms, the need to work harder, the need to appear tougher, the need to hold your ground, the need to keep yourself safe, the need to wear appropriate attire, the need to hide your family commitments and the list is endless of the price a woman pays for proving that she is equally competent.

    Struggle and competition are good for us all but fighting the battle of perception and societal norms makes the journey more difficult for women in various walks of life. But the success stories of women who came in before us gives us a hope for a better tomorrow.

    A wonderful article Dr Shalini on a subject that is hidden in plain sight. Thanks for writing it.


  7. Anonymous

    These women faced so many difficulties . Their efforts are commendable. But even today, doctors are facing a double whammy . Balancing home and work, we get the short end of both. Even now, medicine is not an equal field.


  8. Shefali Tyagi

    Very well written Dr Shalini ! The struggle of these unsung lady doctors should be shared during the medical course. High time that patriarchal mind set of the Indian society undergoes a change . The article brings out the awareness about this issue.


  9. Well researched and well said.
    In the medical humanities that we expound, we use history of medicine sessions to bring to light local histories, and national stories.
    Also, everytime a woman physician ‘settles’ for less than she deserves, she lets down this glorious heritage.
    Thanks for writing this, Shalini


  10. Anonymous

    Beautifully written Shalini. You have penned your thoughts wonderfully well. Now is the time when we should do away with system of naming our institutions in the name of politicians n renowned .male celebrities. Women also are equal contributors in shaping n making our society n country.


  11. a wondefful &eye opener for generations to come I was wonderstruck on the
    story leading to such conclusion /the
    young Dr a well known story writer has added more feathers in her cap/congratulation


  12. Suvasini Sharma

    Beautifully written Shalini! We really need to remember the struggles and sacrifices of these amazing women doctors 150 years ago!


  13. Anonymous

    Absolutely right Shalini🤩…we r blessed to be born in families where gender differentiation was not on the list itself.But in country where almost 70% population still is into rural mindset , daughters are still not considered equal ,leave aside giving them family names or honour.Still long way to go ….


  14. Vandana Bagri bucktowar

    Another sensitive issue!! Beautifully penned down. Indeed its disheartening that our efforts are inconveniently ignored and go unacknowledged by the so-called colleagues at work.

    It’s even more for some of us who are settled out of our native countries. We face double discrimination being an outsider and s lady. Even hospital staff prefers to consult a Male gynaecologists then a lady gynaecologist. Male interns are given diffetent treatment by the nursing officers and midwives.

    “Is raat ki subah kab hogi” … ?!!😪


  15. Shalini…very well written. It set me thinking about my ignorance on this issue. The stories of these unsung women doctors and their struggles should be shared during formative medical days to appreciate our present.


  16. Dr Usha Rusia

    Very true Shalini ,even my generation of doctors who graduated in 1972 and prior to that our blissfully unaware of the Pioneer women physicians.
    It is indeed a shame that there contributions have been ignored so conveniently.
    You would be surprised but even now most women physicians are addressed as’ sister’ referring to you as probably a nurse while a male doctor even if he is a third year student sporting a stethoscope around his neck will be addressed as a doctor.
    We still live in a male dominated world and to establish true equality will need not just legislation but a drastic change of mindset.
    People like you must take up the challenge to bring about this change.
    And it must start from the roots that’s from childhood where parents should play a proactive role.
    Thankyou for bringing up this topic of women physicians ,it deserves to be discussed.


  17. When I was doing my internship, I was often called a nurse by the patients. It would irk me so much! I would clarify I was a doctor. Even today, when I open the doors of my clinic, a few people still ask, ‘Doctor saab kidhar hai?’ And I’m like, ‘Hello? I’m the doctor here.’ As women doctors, we still have a long way to go in terms of earning the same respect in terms of our male counterparts. Thank you for writing this.


  18. Dr. Priya Arora

    Very well said Dr Shalini….as lady doctors (generally also taken as doctors-only-for-ladies which we keep clarifying; more so because of the prestigious tag of the almamater) we have never realised the struggle of ladies( and not women as ragging days taught us) in medicine who made it possible to pursue our dreams.


  19. Anonymous

    So true. I am a doctor but I didn’t know about these women doctors until recently


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