Illustrations & Graphics: Aroop Mishra, Shruti Mathur
(This story was originally published on 15 September 2021, and is being reposted from The Quint's archives on the occasion of International Women's Day.)
Let's date back to British-ruled India in the 1860s. Undivided Bengal, like the rest of the country, was crippled by malpractices such as child marriage and Sati. Most women were not even allowed to study. They were denied their basic rights – leave alone being independent.
But all that was about to gradually change, with the birth of the reformist Brahmo Samaj movement.
And around the same time, a girl born in a small town in India, went on to question patriarchy, smash stereotypes, and in a rare move, go overseas for higher education. She faced discrimination and rebuke. She was even called a 'prostitute' in a news magazine. But nothing could stop her from achieving her dreams and serving humanity till the very end.
This is the story of Dr Kadambini Ganguly – India's first woman doctor to practice western medicine, and a woman of many firsts.
First Woman to Appear for Calcutta University’s Entrance Exam
Kadambini was born on 18 July 1861 in Bihar's Bhagalpur. Her father Brajakishore Bose was a school headmaster, a member of the Brahmo Samaj, and co-founder of India’s first women’s rights organisation – the Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti – in 1863.
Despite opposition from family members, Bose ensured Bini, as he lovingly called her, received English education – at Bethune school for girls in Calcutta – a rare feat for girls then.
Kadambini wanted to appear for the Calcutta University's entrance exam but the varsity was still not admitting female students. Her mentor at Bethune school, Dwarkanath Ganguly, protested against the rule and ensured the varsity changed status quo. In 1878, Kadambini became the first woman to sit for Calcutta University's entrance exam.
First Woman Graduate From South Asia
Kadambini cleared the entrance exam but there were no colleges for women in the Bengal presidency. So, her Bethune school arranged for college classes within the school premises, just for her. The FA (First Arts) course was introduced. And just like that, Bethune school became Bethune College for women, in 1878.
Soon, Kadambini was joined by Chandramukhi Bose. And the first batch of Bethune college had two students. Later, Bethune College opened graduation and postgraduation courses too. And that's how Calcutta University became India's first university to open its doors to women.
Kadambini passed her First Arts exam in 1880 and graduated from Calcutta University in 1882. Kadambini and Chandramukhi became South Asia's first women graduates when they received their degrees in 1883.
First Woman to Enrol in Calcutta Medical College
Right after her graduation, at the age of 21, Kadambini married her mentor Dwarkanath. He was 17 years older and a widower. Besides, they decided to marry as per the Brahmo rituals and not the usual Hindu rituals. Naturally, their alliance was met with a lot resistance from the society. But they were unfazed and Dwarkanath remained a pillar of strength for Kadambini all his life.
Growing up, Kadambini saw young women suffer and often die due to lack of medical facilities for women. Male doctors, especially British doctors, examining women was a taboo. And there were no women doctors.
After graduation, she decided to go to medical school. And her rickets-affected stepson Satish's sufferings strengthened her will to be a doctor.
But Calcutta Medical College did not allow women students. Dwarkanath and Kadambini fought against the status quo again, and Kadambini became the first woman to enrol in Calcutta Medical College, in 1884.
First South Asian Woman Doctor to Practice Western Medicine
Despite her achievements, some of her professors looked down upon her. Most of her male batchmates weren't supportive either. Kadambini faced constant rebuke, but she was determined.
While at Calcutta Medical College, she took only two weeks off after the birth of her first child, so as not to miss lectures.
In a letter to a friend in 1888, Florence Nightingale said:
One professor allegedly did not give Kadambini passing marks in one subject. As a result, instead of an MB degree, she was awarded the Graduate of Medical College of Bengal (GMCB) degree in 1886.
It was no less an achievement. Because with that Kadambini became the first woman doctor to pass out of Calcutta Medical College. That year, she was appointed to Lady Dufferin Victoria Hospital in Calcutta, becoming not just India's but South Asia's first woman doctor to practise western medicine.
First Indian Woman to Sail Abroad for Higher Studies
Kadambini reached her goal fair and square. But the road ahead wasn't smooth. She was often looked down upon by fellow male doctors because she did not have an MB degree. She realised that she needed to be more qualified to gain the respect of her peers. So, she looked westward.
Kadambini left her children in the custody of her sister and eldest stepdaughter and sailed to London in 1893, becoming the first Indian woman to sail abroad for higher studies.
She received the Triple Diplomas of Scottish College after training in Dublin, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. She specialised in gynaecology and paediatrics.
On her return to India, she was promoted as a senior doctor at the same Lady Dufferin Victoria Hospital. Soon, she started practising in private too.
First Woman to Give a Lecture in English at an INC Session
And there's more to Kadambini – a freedom fighter, a social worker, and a reformist.
She strongly opposed Sati, child marriage, and spoke in favour of widow-remarriage.
She spoke up for the rights of women tea garden workers in Assam and coal mine workers in Bihar and Odisha.
She was one of the six representatives in the first female delegation
of the Indian National Congress in 1889 in Bombay (now Mumbai).
She strongly voiced her dissent against Lord Curzon's decision to partition Bengal in 1906.
Kadambini organised Women's Conference in Calcutta in 1906.
In 1908, she formed an association to help the Satyagraha
workers in Transvaal, South Africa.
In the 1890 session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta, Kadambini gave a lecture in English, becoming the first woman to do so. Annie Besant, in her book How India Wrought For Freedom, said:
In Service of Humanity Till Her Last Breath
Her journey was commendable and achievement spectacular. But often an orthodox society treated her no better than a midwife. She was once served food on the backyard of a rich patient's house and asked to clean up after herself, as a mark of disrespect.
She was even referred to as a 'prostitute' in Bengali magazine Bangabashi. Dwarakanath went to court, which sentenced the editor to jail for six months and imposed a fine.
But nothing could stop her from serving those in need. Despite massive outrage, Kadambini didn't hesitate from treating lower caste women and sex-workers, who were considered untouchables.
She didn't let her ill-health come in the way of her work and treated patients till the end.
On 3 October 1923, 62-year-old Kadambini conducted a successful critical operation on a patient. That evening, on her on way back home, she died of a heart attack.
In service of humanity till the end, Dr Kadambini Ganguly was, and will remain, an inspiration to all.