The Three Golden Women Of Medicine In Pre-Independent India

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By: Dr. Samayug Bhowmik, Bureau Chief, ICN-West Bengal               PART-3

KOLKATA: Herein, I will highlight three Indian daughters who became doctors and made their presence in other fields also.They are Kadambini Ganguly, Anandi Gopal Joshi and Rukhmabai.

Dr. Rukhmabai, born on 22 November 1864  was an Indian physician and feminist. She was also a practicing doctor  involved in a landmark case involving her marriage as a child bride. The case raised significant public debate across several topics, which most prominently included law/ social reform vs tradition/ conservatism, in the then British-ruled India which ultimately manifested into the Age of Consent Act in 1891.

Rukhmabai was born into a Marathi family. Her father passed away when she was two years of age and her mother was on seventeen. Six years after her father’s demise, her mother married  Dr Sakharam Arjun who was an eminent doctor and a social activist in Bombay.

When she was 11-year-old Rukhmabai was married to 19 year old Dadaji Bhikaji and deviating from the contemporary social norms, Bhikaji stayed with Rukhmabai ‘s  family as a Gharjamai (in-house groom) .

When Rukhmabai was 12yrs of age, as per their tradition Rukhmabai was supposed to go to her in-laws house and to live with her husband Bhikaji to fulfil their conjugal rights. She refused and was supported by her step father Dr.Sakharam .

In 1885, a court case was lodged by Bhikaji seeking “Restitution of conjugal rights” titled  as “Bhikaji vs. Rukhmabai” on which the judgement was passed by Justice Robert Hill Pinhey who stated that English precedents on restitution did not apply in this case as the English law applied between consenting adults whereas in this case Rukhmabai had been wed in her “helpless infancy” and found no precedent in Hindu law.

In 1886, the case was brought up for retrial. The case drew criticisms and public debates from various sections of society which revolved around multiple points of contention  Hindu versus English Law, reform from the inside versus outside and whether ancient customs deserved respect or not.

In 1887, Justice Farran, using interpretations of Hindu laws, ordered Rukhmabai to “go live with her husband or to face six months of imprisonment”. Rukhmabai responded that she was ready to face imprisonment. This again resulted in further social debate.

Max Müller wrote that the legal route was not the solution to the problem of Rukhmabai ’s  case and that it was her education that had made her the best judge of her own choice.

After a series of court cases which resulted in the affirmation of the marriage, she appealed to Queen Victoria who overruled the courts’ order and ordered to dissolve the marriage.

This changed the book on Hindu law that “marriages performed before the respective ages of 20 in boys and 15 in girls shall not be considered legal in the eyes of the law” which later changed the fate of all infant Indian daughters .Thus In July 1888, a settlement was reached.

During those days Rukhmabai studied at home using books from a Free Church Mission library. Later she went to England and studied Medicine and in 1894, she received her Doctor of Medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women and Royal Free Hospital.

In 1895, she returned to India and worked as a Chief Medical Officer at the Women’s Hospital in Surat. In 1918, she turned down the offer of a role in the Woman’s Medical Service, opting instead to work at the Zenana (Women’s) State Hospital in Rajkot until her retirement .

Dr.Rukhmabai passed away on 25 September 1955 at the age of ninety.

Their significance:

Doctors Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Joshi were the first Indian women to have received medical degrees in 1886 whereas Dr.Rukhmabai in 1894.But only Dr. Ganguly and Dr.Rukhmabai practiced medicine as  Dr.Joshi died a premature death at the beginning of her medical carrier.

All three women are now in the pages of History but they inscripted significant timeless messages through their wisdom and sacrifice for the betterment of Indian society.

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