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Anandibai Joshee: The First Indian Woman to Earn a Medical Degree in the United States

(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division)

Did you know? Anandibai Joshee (1865-1887) was the first woman from India to earn a degree in western medicine in the United States.

Caroline Healey Dall’s 1888 biography “The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee” is available in the Library of Congress collection on the Internet Archive.

Joshee was born in the town of Kalyan in the Bombay Presidency of British India on March 31, 1865. At the very young age of nine, she was married to a thirty-year-old widower and postal clerk named Gopalrao. The ethicality and modern-day illegality of this sort of marriage notwithstanding, a number of studies have looked at their relationship and Gopalrao’s encouragement of women’s education. (Search terms include: “Joshi, Anandi Gopal, 1865-1887″ and “Indian women physicians–India–Biography.”) On one hand, he went against the grain of socially strict elements in nineteenth-century Indian society by tutoring his wife in subjects like math, geography, English, and Marathi. However, it became Anandibai Joshee’s choice to focus on medicine after the loss of her infant son following childbirth. The type of medical care to prevent similar tragedies was much less common in her day, and Joshee felt that this was the area in which she could contribute.

In 1879, Anandibai’s husband Gopalrao wrote a letter that was published in the Christian journal “The Missionary Review of the World.” His community in India, Gopalrao wrote, had condemned his idea of social reform and opposed his wife’s education on the grounds that it went against normative gender roles in Indian society. Gopalrao wanted the letter to facilitate an arrangement for his fourteen-year-old wife to study medicine in the United States, and he explicitly asked for assistance in doing so. Gopalrao’s letter eventually came into the hands of  a Presbyterian minister stationed in India, who forwarded it to the editor of “The Missionary Review.” The replies, both of which were published in the journal’s same volume after Gopalrao’s letter, reflect their hope that the Joshees will first convert to Christianity. Wilder’s reply further discourages the idea of Anandibai coming to the United States, arguing that the couple should remain in India and preach the gospel there.

Gopalrao Joshee’s letter about wanting his wife Anandibai’s prospective education in the United States was published in “The Missionary Review.”Nonetheless, it was a particular reader of “The Missionary Review” who would play a major part in Anandibai Joshee’s life, namely, Theodocia Carpenter of Roselle, New Jersey. Through correspondence, Joshee and Carpenter struck up a friendship with discussions of family, religion, and the news of the day. Joshee even addressed Carpenter as “my dear aunt.” Their correspondence culminated in a plan in 1883 for Joshi’s travel to the United States, where she would stay with Carpenter and enroll in an American medical school. Her husband Gopalrao, meanwhile, remained in India to take care of family members.

Before leaving India, Joshee gave a public speech in February 1883 in the eastern town of Serampore where Gopalrao was posted. The aim of the speech was to state her reasons for the journey to the United States and address the questions and oppositions she has received. She spoke about the unfriendly stares and stones thrown at her for defying social norms, and she promised to face difficulties with greater courage. With regard to people’s suspicions of her faith, she pledged to leave as a Hindu, and to return as a Hindu. To those just wondering why she would even take such a dangerous trip to an unfamiliar country, she reaffirmed the critical need for women in India to have access to medical care from Indian women.

In 1883, Joshee joined the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, now known as the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She graduated in 1886 with her degree in medicine; her M.D. thesis focused on Hindu obstetrics. Word of her achievement soon reached India, where she received a job offer not long after graduation. The government of the princely state of Kohlapur, which is part of the modern-day state of Maharashtra, wanted to appoint her “Lady Doctor of Kohlapur” at the Albert Edward Hospital. Her ship arrived in India in November 1886, but by this time, she was seriously ill. After a prolonged illness, she passed away on February 26, 1887 only one month before her 22nd birthday. Her ashes were sent to Theodocia Carpenter, who buried them in a family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Joshee accomplished a great deal in a short yet eventful life. She persevered to study medicine in two cultures (Indian and American), which, at the time, even discouraged teaching women to read. She journeyed far from home and everything familiar for the sake of education and with a desire to use her medical knowledge for the welfare of others. And she inspired future generations to do the same.

You can read more about Dr. Joshi’s remarkable career in this digitized copy of Caroline Healey Dall’s 1888 biography “The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee.” This book is freely available in the Library of Congress digital collection on the Internet Archive. And for those who read Marathi, the Asian Reading Room has a number of books on Anandibai Joshee, including works of drama, biography, and the making of a biographical film.

Some of the Marathi books available in the Library’s Asian Reading Room are: “Ḍô. Ānandībāī Jośī yāñce caritra” by Kāśībāī Kāniṭakara. 3rd ed., 2002; “Ānandī Gopāḷa” by Rāma Jogaḷekara, 1976; and “Ḍô. Ānandībāī Jośī, ekā laghupaṭācī rojaniśī” by Añjalī Kīrtane, 2001.

 

 

 

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