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.
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.
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.