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Issue No.: 550 | April 2013
 

Anandi Gopal Joshi

B. M. N. Murthy
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India’s first lady to qualify as a Doctor from the USA in 1886

This is a moving and pathetic story of the first Indian woman, Anandi Joshi, who went to America and got qualified as a medical doctor in 1886.  


Anandi, born in 1865 to an extremely orthodox middle class Brahmin family in Bombay, was married when she was just 9 years old to a widower almost thrice her age [25 years]. Anandi learnt her alphabets only after her marriage, her husband being her tutor. By sheer determination and indomitable courage of both the husband and wife, she rose to secure a foreign scholarship, went to USA and qualified there as a Doctor of medicine. She returned to her motherland when she was just 21, but fate snatched her away in Poona under pathetic conditions when she was just 22 and at the prime of her youth.
               
India is bound by tradition in matters of religion, culture and family values. The nineteenth century in particular was a time when two great civilizations were in active conflict – traditional Hinduism and the resurgent Western civilization as transmitted through the British Raj, which was in its heyday in that period. Reformers like Raja Ramamohan Roy, Maharshi Karve, and Mahadev Govinda Ranade played a prominent role in advocating the emancipation of women, their rights and aspirations. Issues like women’s education; widow re-marriage etc. drew considerable attention of the society. In fact, there were a few instances where a few women actually stepped out of the beaten track of established orthodoxy and fought tooth and nail against the prevailing customs. In the galaxy of such brave and courageous women, shines the name of Anandi Gopal as a brilliant star even today. Anandi was the very first Indian woman coming from an extremely orthodox and poor Brahmin family from Bombay (now Mumbai) who ventured to go to U.S.A in 1883 at a young age of 17 years and obtain an M.D. degree from an American University.

Anandi, whose maiden name was Yamu, was born to the Joshis in 1865 A.D. Her parents were residents of Kalyan, Bombay and her father Ganapatrao Joshi hailed from the family of the Peshwas. However, the family was now impoverished and all that they had was some ancestral land with a dilapidated building. The Joshis were highly orthodox and ran a joint family with three generations staying under the same roof. As and when Yamu grew up, it became a harrowing task for the Joshis to find a suitable bridegroom for Yamu. In those days, it was the tradition in orthodox Brahmin families to get the girl married before she reached puberty; it was otherwise considered a public disgrace for the family. Further, Yamu was dark in complexion, hefty and pockmarked. The family did not have sufficient financial wherewithal to offer any dowry to compensate for these deficiencies in Yamu. When Yamu turned nine and nearing puberty, the parents became desperate, and were pushed to the brink to accept any boy who would marry their daughter.
 
Gopalrao, also a Joshi, aged about 25 years, was a clerk in the Kalyan Post Office and used to stay in Thane. He was an eccentric whose two obsessions in life were: women’s education and remarriage of widows. When a matchmaker suggested the name of Gopalrao to Yamu’s parents as a prospective groom for their daughter, they immediately jumped at the offer, in spite of the fact that Gopalrao was an unimpressive looking widower. It was also disclosed that his first wife Savitri died because he bullied her with his eccentric efforts to teach her to read and write Marathi. Yamu’s educational level was also equally poor. Notwithstanding all these deficiencies in Gopalrao, the Joshis still agreed to the marriage. The boy and the girl saw each other and the marriage was fixed. The only condition that Gopalrao imposed was that he should be permitted to educate the girl and that the girl should be willing to read and write. Having agreed to this condition, the preparations for the marriage started.

After agreeing to marry Yamu, quixotic Gopalrao suddenly changed his mind, still obsessed with the idea of marrying a widow. In a shockingly callous manner, he went away to Poona without informing anybody and did not turn up even on the wedding day. He finally arrived at Kalyan after the muhurt (auspicious minute) was over, keeping everyone in anxiety and suspense. As the marriage could not take place as fixed earlier, it took place subsequently. Yamu became Anandi after her marriage to Gopalrao. It was later learnt that Gopalrao went to Poona with a view to getting  married to a widow and returned to Kalyan after having been ditched by the widow who refused even to see Gopalrao after hearing that he was an ordinary clerk in a post office.

When Anandi was 14, she gave birth to a boy. The child survived only for 10 days because of non-availability of proper health care. Anandi and Gopalrao were very upset by this sad event. This became a turning point in the life of Anandi and inspired her to make all out efforts to study medicine and health care. Her husband also started exploring avenues to find out ways and means for Anandi to study medicine when she is in a position to do so.     

As Anandi was too young to live independently, the newly married stayed with the Joshis at Kalyan. During his leisure hours, Gopalrao started teaching Anandi how to read and write Marathi, starting with the alphabets. Gradually he inculcated a desire in his wife to learn more and more. In course of time, he taught her English, Sanskrit, several of the scriptures, Geography etc. The family and the immediate neighbourhood could not believe the metamorphosis they saw in Anandi when she turned into a well-read intellectual girl. All this change took place in the face of stiff opposition from her parents, frequent bickering in the family and the stubborn and capricious attitude of her husband. During this period, Gopalrao got himself transferred to places like Alibag, Kolhapur, and Calcutta etc. to avoid direct interference of Anandi’s parents in her education.

While at Kolhapur, Gopalrao met a foreign Christian lady missionary whose influence on him was such that many times he thought converting to Christianity. The zeal with which the Christian missionaries took up the cause of women’s education had a terrific impact on the young Gopal Rao. He was convinced that the education of women was extremely important if any nation were to prosper. He, therefore, thought that he should first set an example by giving the highest education to his own wife. On a sudden impulse he thought, "why not send Anandi to America for higher education with the help of these Christian missionaries?”

In 1880, he sent a letter to a well-known American missionary, Royal Wilder, stating his wife’s keenness to study medicine in America and if he would be able to help them. Wilder agreed to help the couple on the condition that they convert to Christianity. This proposition, however, was not acceptable to the Joshi couple. However, Wilder was gracious enough publicise the request for assistance and the desire of the Joshi couple for Anandi to study. This appeal caught the eye of another Christian missionary in America, Mrs. Carpenter, who was impressed by the earnestness and keenness of Anandi to study medicine. She got in touch with the Joshi couple and after some correspondence, volunteered to help Anandi to come to America and study medicine.

Mrs. Carpenter arranged Anandi admission to the Medical College at Philadelphia. On 17 April 1883, Anandi sailed to America from Calcutta (now Kolkata) alone. She was just 17 years old, from a poor orthodox Brahmin family travelling alone to a distant foreign country at a time when crossing the sea was considered a sin in traditional Hindu families. When Anandi joined the Medical College, the Dean was all praise for this young Indian girl’s courage, conviction and her great desire to secure higher knowledge against all odds. The college offered her a scholarship of 600 dollars a month for three years. She chose ‘Obstetrics among the Hindu Aryans’ for her specialization. Even in America, Anandi’s life style did not change and she remained austere and simple. She continued to wear the typical 9-yard Maharshtrian saree. She was well received by the Carpenter family who not only welcomed her, but also treated her as a member of the family all through her stay in America.

After Anandi’s departure, Gopalrao got dejected and depressed, frequently quarrelled with his boss and finally resigned his job as a postal clerk.  Ultimately, he made up his mind to go to America to join Anandi but did not have enough money to purchase a ticket to America. He, therefore, purchased a ticket up to Rangoon, worked there for sometime as a porter in the docks, earned enough money and finally reached America. Anandi was overjoyed when her husband joined her in Philadelphia after about three years. By that time, she had completed her medical course in First Class. In the Convocation held on 11th March 1886, Anandi received standing ovation when the President of the College cited:

"I am proud to say that today should be recorded in golden letters in the annals of this college. We have the first Indian woman who is honoring this college by acquiring a degree in medicine. Mrs. Anandi Joshi has the honor to be the very first woman doctor of India”.

On her graduation, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message.

It was rather unfortunate that during the latter part of her stay in America, Anandi frequently suffered from severe cough and quite often fell sick. She decided to return to India in 1886. When her ship reached Bombay, a grand reception was arranged in her honour. The princely State of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital.

In course of time, the disease worsened with no prospects of recovery. Anandi, though a qualified doctor from America, insisted on her being examined by the then well-known Ayurvedic doctor Dr. Mehendele staying in Poona. She was taken to Poona but Dr. Mehendele refused even to see Anandi even though he was told that the patient was on the throes of death. Adding insult to injury, he was cruel enough to say, "This woman went to America. She lived alone with strangers, ate food forbidden to Brahmins by religion and brought shame on Brahmins”. Anandi returned home dejected and disappointed with profuse tears in her eyes.

Members of the elite in Poona came to see Anandi; flattered her achievements but no one came forward with any financial help to the family, which was in extreme penury. One fine day Anandi received a letter from Lokamanya Tilak, Editor "Kesari”, saying, inter alia, "I know how in the face of all the difficulties you went to a foreign country and acquired knowledge with such diligence. You are one of the greatest women of our modern era. It came to my knowledge that you need money desperately. I am a newspaper editor. I do not have a large income. Even then I wish to give you one hundred rupees”.

When Anandi saw Tilak’s letter, tears flowed profusely and she said "This penury, this begging for charity, no, no, I can’t bear it any more. What was I, and what has become of me? I am not a beggar’s daughter. None of my family was ever a beggar. I am a landlord’s daughter. That people should take pity on me and offer me money for my bare existence, how can I live with all this? God is so cruel, why does he not relieve me of all this?”

Within a few days after uttering these pathetic words, Anandi Gopal passed away into eternity on 26th February 1887, a month short of her 22nd birthday. Her death was mourned throughout India. Her ashes were sent to Mrs. Carpenter, her host in America who placed them in her family cemetery near New York.

B. M. N. MURTHY is a retired Chief Engineer, Life Insurance Corporation of India. 
After his retirement Mr. Murthy has devoted his time to inform "the younger generation of the spiritual wisdom of India, reminding them of the great traditional lineage to which we all belong”. Email: bmnmurty@gmail.com

 
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