Kadambini Ganguly | India’s First Women Physician

160th birthday on 18 July 2021
Kadambini Ganguly was one of the first Indian female doctors who practiced with a degree in Western medicine, alongside other pioneering women such as Anandibai Joshi. Ganguly was the first woman to gain admission to Calcutta Medical College in 1884, subsequently trained in Scotland, and established a successful medical practice in India. Kadambini and her friend Chandramukhi Basu were also the first women to graduate college in Indian history.

BIOGRAPHY

Kadambini Ganguly - Wikipedia

Born
July 18, 1861, Bhagalpur, Bihar, India
Died
October 3, 1923, Kolkata, India (age of 62)
Spouse/ Husband
Dwarkanath Ganguly (m. 1883–1898)
Parents
Braja Kishore Basu
Children
• Bidhumukhi Devi (Step-daughter)
• Satish Chandra Gangopadhyay (step-son)
• Nirupama Halder (Bela or Beli),
• Nirmal Chandra Ganguly (Bhulu),
• Prafulla Chandra Ganguly (Manglu),
• Joytirmoyee Ganguly (Chameli),
• Prabhat Chandra Ganguly (Janglu),
• Amal Chandra Ganguly (Khokon),
• Himani Ganguly (Death at just 3 months old)
• Jayanti Barman (Bulbuli)


Education
Bethune College, Medical College & Hospital, Kolkata, University of Calcutta, Edinburgh College of Medicine for Women
Alma mater
Bethune College
University of Calcutta
Calcutta Medical College
Occupation
Doctor

  • The Bengali television series Prothoma Kadambini is a period drama based on Kadambini Ganguly’s life.
  • Kadambini Ganguly was one of the first female graduates in the entire British Empire and became the first female practitioner of western medicine not just in India, but in the whole of South Asia.
  • 1888- Received appointment at the Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital, Calcutta
  • 1889- attended the Indian National Congress convention in Bombay
  • 1893- Went to England for Triple Diplomas from the Scottish College

Dr. Kadambini Ganguly

In terms of her education, Ganguly did not stop at her medical degree from Calcutta, she went on to pursue three additional doctoral certifications with a specialization in gynecology, a rarity for women in that era. She returned to India in the 1890s to start her own private clinic.
The 2020 “Prothoma Kadambini” biographical television series based on Ganguly’s life reinvigorated her legacy by telling her inspirational story to a new generation.
Google’s honorary scribble comes at a time when the world is over a year into the coronavirus pandemic. The vital role played by doctors, medical professionals has never been more indispensable for society. In such times, Ganguly’s contribution to medical infrastructure in India and her invincible spirit to help others provides inspiration to many.
Ganguly sought to uplift other women in India through both medical service and activism in India’s women’s rights movement. Among many other campaigns, Ganguly joined six others to form the first all-women delegation of the 1889 Indian National Congress.
It once again aims to signify the selfless work done by our frontline workers throughout the course of the pandemic.
A pioneer in many spheres, Kadambini Ganguly was the first female to practice western medicine & the first to attend college in India.
Featuring artwork by Arghya Manna & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Early life

Kadambini Bose was born in Bhagalpur British India—modern-day Bangladesh—on July 18, 1861. She was born during the Bengali renaissance, which was a period of religious, social and educational advancements in the Bengal region from the 19th century to the early 20th century. Kadambini was directly impacted by this cultural movement, as her father was an influential member of the Hindu reformation movement Brahmo Samaj, as well as co-founder of India’s first women’s rights organization, Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti. And although this was a time when Indian woman had scarce educational opportunities, Kadambini’s father, who was headmaster of Bhagalpur School, understood the importance of education and allowed Kadambini to attend school.
After primary school, Kadambini attended India’s first college for women, the recently established Banga Mahila Vidyalaya, which later merged with Bethune College. The school adopted the Calcutta University entrance exam, and in 1879, Kadambini became the first woman to pass this rigorous academic test. Kadambini’s success inspired Bethune College to start their FA (First Arts) program and open up-graduate courses. The first classes consisted of only two students, Kadambini and her peer Chandramukhi BasuIn; they completed their studies in 1883, becoming the first women to graduate college in India.
After graduating, Kadambini married Dwarkanath Ganguly, her mentor, and teacher at Bethune College. Dwarkanath, a passionate leader of India’s women’s rights movement, encouraged his wife to pursue a medical degree. Calcutta Medical College refused to accept Kadambini, but the couple fought hard and she was eventually admitted as their first female medical student. Despite continued resistance from teachers and staff, Kadambini graduated Calcutta in 1886 with a Graduate of Bengal Medical College Degree, becoming the first Indian-educated female doctor. (Anandi Gopal Joshi was the first female Indian to become a doctor, however she was educated in America.)
Kadambini had only been practicing medicine for a short time when a conservative Hindu news periodical published an article that questioned her doctoral qualifications and referred to her in unsavory ways. Kadambini brought the matter to court and after a long legal battle the article’s editor was sentenced to six months in jail for libel. Criticism from conservatives opposing female liberation could not hold her back and Kadambini chose to pursue the highest possible medical qualification; she traveled to the United Kingdom in 1892 and received three more doctoral certifications. When she returned to India she worked as a gynecologist at the Lady Dufferin Hospital, and later started her own private practice.
Kadambini’s busy life as a doctor and mother of eight children did not stop her from playing a role in India’s women’s rights movement. She was one of six representatives in the first female delegation of the 1889 Indian National Congress, and in 1906 she helped organize the Women’s Conference in Calcutta. She was also extremely active in many other movements, like one that fought to improve work conditions for female Eastern Indian coal miners.
In her personal life, she married at the age of twenty-one a widower, 39 (and her teacher), Dwaraka Nath Ganguly. The marriage outraged not only conservative Hindus, but some of Dwarakanath’s close Brahmo friends as well.
Apart from being a doctor, she was also a philanthropist and a patriot. Along with SWARNA KUMARI DEVI, she represented Bengal in the 1889 session of the INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS. She was also one of the organizers of the Women’s Conference held in Kolkata in 1906. As a philanthropist, she supported the cause of the women labourers in the tea gardens of Assam and those in Bihar coal mines.

The First Woman to Attend College

Kadambini was born in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in British India, into a progressive Brahmo Samaj family. Her father Brajkishore Bose, was a schoolteacher & advocated for Kadambini’s education. She finished her schooling in Dacca (now in Bangladesh) and Calcutta (now Kolkata). Her family hailed from the Barisal district in Bengal, now in Bangladesh.
When Kadambini realized she couldn’t attend college since women were barred, she fought back. She found support in Dwarkanath Ganguly, a teacher at her Bethune School. Dwarkanath was a liberal Brahmo Samaji & a great mentor. Finally, Calcutta University submitted to their demands, & Kadambini cleared the entrance exam in 1878 to attend the affiliated Bethune College. In 1882 Kadambini graduated with an arts degree from Calcutta University, alongside another female candidate Chandramukhi Bose who was from Dehradun. Thus Kadambini & Chandramukhi became the first two female graduates from India & the entire British Empire.
At the age of 21, Kadambini married Dwarkanath in 1883. But since Dwarkanath was 17 years older & a widower, the alliance was met with resistance from the society. The couple however was unfazed, & Dwarkanath remained a strong supporter of Kadambini’s professional aspirations throughout his life.
The First Female Doctor to Practice Western Medicine
Soon after graduating college Kadambini decided to go to medical school. Only Madras Medical College had started admitting female students in 1875, while the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) did not allow any females to enter. Dwarkanath & Kadambini took it upon themselves to change this rule! They fought against the status quo, & Kadambini became the first woman ever to enroll in CMC in 1884. She even earned a fellowship of Rs. 20/month from the government.
This was a great victory for women’s education efforts in the country. Not surprisingly though the idea of a female becoming a doctor was not welcomed by the orthodox society. Even some of the professors of CMC were not happy with the inclusion of women! So much so that one professor did not let Kadambini pass one of her subjects. As a consequence, instead of an MB degree, Kadambini was awarded the Graduate of Medical College of Bengal (GMCB) degree in 1886.
The same year Kadambini was appointed to Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital, Calcutta. But it was not a pleasant experience as she felt being looked down upon by the fellow doctors, as she did not have a MB degree. She quickly realized that she needed more qualifications to gain the respect of her peers. She sailed to England in 1893 & obtained triple diploma in Licentiate of the College of Physicians, Edinburg (LRCP), Licentiate of the College of Surgeons, Glasgow (LRCS), & Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Dublin (LFPS) from the Scottish College. Upon her return she was promoted to a senior doctor position & also started to maintain a thriving private practice.
Her achievements were noticed by the likes of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. In a letter to her friend Nightingale mentions that she has been asked to recommend Kadambini to the female ward of a Calcutta, hospital & had the following words of praise-
“ (She) has already passed what is called the first licentiate in medicine and surgery examinations and is to go up for the final examination in March next. This young lady, Mrs. Ganguly, married! After she made up her mind to become a doctor! and has had one, if not two children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in!! And did not miss, I believe, a single lecture!!” — Florence Nightingale, praising Kadambini in an 1888 letter.

Life Beyond Medicine

Beyond being a successful doctor, Kadambini fulfilled her domestic duties by raising 8 children, 3 of which were stepchildren. She was also very deft at needlework & known for her lace-making skills. As an activist for women’s emancipation, she spoke for the rights of women coal miners in Bihar & tea estate laborers in Assam. She attended the Indian National Congress’s session in 1889 in Bombay, as one of the 1stfemale attendees. She took the lead in organizing meetings; including the 1906 Women’s Conference on the aftermath of the Bengal partition in Calcutta, & presiding over the 1908 meeting to express sympathy with workers on Satyagraha(non-violent resistance) from Transvaal in South Africa.
Kadambini went on serve as a doctor for 37 years, until her death in 1923 at the age of 62. At a time when higher education for women was unthinkable, Kadambini became one of the 1stwomen who could have a flourishing STEM career. Kadambini’s story shows that if you have a vision that you won’t give up, you can open new roads in the unlikeliest terrains!

Kadambini’s struggle as a woman who wanted to study medicine

Kadambini wanted to appear for the entrance exam at the University of Calcutta (CU), and so did a Bengali Christian girl from Dehra Dun – Chandramukhi Basu. But the varsity was still not admitting female students.
Thanks to Dwarakanath’s fight to procure the needed permission, both Kadambini and a girl named Sarala were allowed to appear for the CU entrance exam in 1877.
Sarala got married and couldn’t appear for the test, but Kadambini cleared the exam just a mark away from first class. The Junior Board of Examiners declared Chandramukhi to have attained the entrance standard in the examination of 1877.
While Kadambini took admission in at the College Class of Bethune School, Chandramukhi joined the Free Church of Scotland College. Both women passed their First Arts (FA) examination in 1880 leading to Kadambini’s dream to get admission at the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) – then known as the Medical College, Bengal. Again, she found her road to success barred as the medical college didn’t admit female students though Madras Medical College had started admitting female students from 1875.
Kadambini took admission to Bethune College again with Chandramukhi and graduated in 1882 from Calcutta University.
They became two of the first female graduates in the entire British Empire when they received their degrees in 1883. It was their success that made Bethune College introduce FA (First Arts) and graduate courses in 1883.
Dwarakanath again fought for Kadambini to study at the CMC and finally, in 1884, she became the first woman to get admitted to the Calcutta Medical College.
Kadambini and Dwarakanath got married in 1883 and the decision didn’t sit right with many of the Hindus and a section of the Brahmos. Thirty-nine-year-old Dwarakanath was a widower and some refused to recognise their marriage.
Together with his call for women’s emancipation and his wife’s admission to a medical college despite being a woman, the couple’s beliefs drew controversial ire from the society. Life would not be easy.
The government offered Kadambini Rs 20 per month as scholarship for the medical college education, but the CWC professors didn’t like her studying there.
A professor was so against it that he failed Kadambini in a paper which led to her losing out on her MB degree certificate in 1888. So, she got only the certificate of the First LMS examination from CU.
When she completed her studies in CMC, as per the practice, the then-principal Dr JM Coates awarded her GMCB diploma that allowed her to start a private practice as a doctor. This was before CWC came under the jurisdiction of Calcutta University.

How she turned the heads of Florence Nightingale and Anne Besant

Such was Kadambini Ganguly’s achievements as a pioneering woman that even Florence Nightingale heard about her. She wrote to a friend in February 1888 exclaiming Kadambini’s passion for medicine.
” (she) has already passed what is called the first licentiate in medicine and surgery examinations and is to go up for the final examination in March next. This young lady, Mrs. Ganguly, married! after she made up her mind to become a doctor! and has had one, if not two children since. But she was absent only thirteen days for her lying-in!! and did not miss, I believe, a single lecture!!” she wrote.
She added in the letter that she had been asked to recommend Kadambini to Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital.
Annie Besant also hailed Kadambini as a “symbol that India’s freedom would uplift India’s womanhood” in her book ‘How India Wrought For Freedom’.

Kadambini’s shaky career start and the discriminations heaped on her

In 1888, Kadambini joined Lady Dufferin at Rs 300 per month, which comes to around 4.5 lakhs per month on today’s scale – a huge sum indeed!
However she didn’t have an MB degree and as a result, the British lady doctors started to look down upon her. She started her private practice but was unsuccessful.
Moreover, there was a predominant bias against female doctors and Kadambini was often treated as a local midwife.
One incident is noted where she and her assistant where served food on the veranda of a rich patient’s house instead of inside, and were even asked to clean up after themselves.
She was called something akin to a ‘whore’ in a Bengali periodical as well. Dwarakanath fought for her and against the prejudices against women. He even went to court which ended in the magazine editor going to jail for six months with a fine of Rs 100.

Kadambini’s further studies in England

Finally, Kadambini decided to go for further medical studies in England. Breaking all conventions, the Bengali woman left her children to the care of her elder sister and travelled to England in 1893.
Empowered by her incredible will power, Dwarakanath’s unfailing support, and the help of her cousin Monomohan Ghosh who was a London-based barrister, Kadambini took the decision to appear for triple diploma courses in medical sciences at the Scottish College at Edinburgh.
Since she already had a BA degree from CU and a GMCB from CMC, she completed her triple diploma in a very short time and only had to appear in the last exam.
She had arrived at London on March 23, 1893, and in July, she received the Triple Diplomas of the Scottish College after training in Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
She was the only female among the 14 successful candidates that year, and definitely the first Indian woman to achieve such a rare feat. Moreover, she also specialized in pediatrics and gynecology.
The three diplomas she obtained were: Licentiate of the College of Physicians, Edinburg (LRCP), Licentiate of the College of Surgeons, Glasgow (LRCS), and Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Dublin (LFPS).

The turn in her career after Kadambini’s return from England

Kadambini Ganguly’s life took a turn when she returned from England. She was finally accepted as a senior doctor at Lady Dufferin Hospital and she resumed her private practice as well which boomed and soon made her leave her hospital job.
When she took charge of Nepal’s Queen Mother in 1895-96 and helped her recover, she started to be called upon by royal families for treatment.
Yet another striking case took place when male doctors diagnosed a tumour in the abdomen of a girl but Kadambini correctly diagnosed it as a pregnancy and safely delivered the child.
Kadambini suffered from high blood pressure but never let it come between her and her work. On October 3, 1923, 63-year-old Kadambini conducted a critical operation on a patient. She came home wilting and on the same evening, passed away.

Kadambini’s social work to empower India

Apart from being a doctor, Kadambini was a powerhouse who symbolized the voice of women. Though the Indian National Congress (INC) was founded in 1885, it didn’t allow women to participate – something Dwarakanath was voicing against ever since.
But in 1889, Kadambini and five other women were allowed to participate and India’s first female doctor even moved a vote of thanks.
In the next session of the INC in 1890 in Calcutta, Kadambini gave a lecture in English – becoming the first woman to do so at the INC.
After the Bengal Partition, Kadambini organized the Women’s Conference in Calcutta in 1906. In 1908, she formed an association to help the Satyagraha workers in Transvaal, South Africa. Moreover, when a meeting was arranged at the Sadharan Brahma Samaj in 1914, in honour of Gandhi during his visit to Calcutta, she presided over it.
In 1915, Kadambini spoke against the practice of Calcutta Medical College of not allowing women to study there at a major medical conference. So provoking were her words that they changed their policy and finally started to admit all female students.
She assisted her husband Dwarakanath in condemning the exploitation of the tea garden workers in Assam, and in 1922, looked into the condition of female coal mine workers in Bihar and Odisha along with poet Kamini Roy on behalf of a government enquiry commission.
Surprisingly, another thing Kadambini was known for was her amazing skill in knitting yards of fine and beautiful lace!

Confusion between Kadambini Ganguly, Anandibai Joshi, and other pioneering Indian female doctors

There is a common confusion regarding who was India’s first female doctor to practice western medicine – Kadambini Ganguly or Anandibai Gopal Joshi. While Anandibai got her MB degree from Women’s Medical College, Pennsylvania in 1886, Kadambini received her qualifications in India.
Sadly, Anandibai passed away from tuberculosis in 1887 before she could start her practice just within a year of her return to India. She had been appointed a resident physician of Albert Edward Hospital at Kohlapur.
Thus Kadambini was the first female practitioner of western medicine in India while Anandibai was the first female to receive a medical degree in Western medicine from the west.
Yet another contemporary of Kadambini’s was Anne Jagannathan. She was the first Indian woman to complete a certificate course in medical sciences from Madras Medical College in 1886-87. Like Kadambini, she too went to English for further studies and was awarded Triple Qualification Board Diplomas from Scottish Colleges.
Anne returned to India in 1892 and began her career at the Cama Hospital for Women and Children in Bombay. But she too died of tuberculosis in just two years.

‘The most accomplished and liberated Brahmo woman of her time’

Despite being born at a time when women becoming doctors was a fairy-tale aspiration, and despite having to bring up eight children, and attend her socio-political activities, Kadambini Ganguly never compromised on her medical responsibilities.
American historian David Kopf hailed the relationship between her and Dwarakanath as being “most unusual in being founded on mutual love, sensitivity and intelligence.”
He praised “her ability to rise above circumstances and to realize her potential as a human being” and rightly called Kadambini “the most accomplished and liberated Brahmo woman of her time.”

Author’s Note

1886 was a remarkable year for women’s education in India when two females qualified to become doctors in western medicine!
Anandibai Joshi received her medical degree from the Pennsylvania College of Medicine, on March 11th, 1886. However, Anandibai’s life was cut short as she succumbed to ill-health in 1887 soon after returning to India & she could never practice medicine. Kadambini Ganguly also graduated in 1866, from Calcutta Medical College, although the exact date of her graduation is not known. Kadambini went on serve as a doctor for 37 years, until her death in 1923 at the age of 62.
Thus, Anandibai Joshi is the first Indian woman to be qualified as a doctor, & Kadambini Ganguly is the first Indian woman to practice her profession as a doctor.

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