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Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Anandibai Joshi, M.D.

Image Courtesy of India Today

Anandibai Joshi was a huge inspiration for Indian women in India and the United States to enter the medical field, as she was the first Indian woman to receive a degree in western medicine. Anandibai was born in March 1865, as Yamuna, in the Bombay presidency. She was born to a family of landlords and was pressured by her parents to marry at the age of 9 years old. She married a man, nearly twenty years older than her, named Gopalrao Joshi who gave her the name Anandibai. 

As her life progressed with her husband, he was an advocate for her education, and all women’s education in India, which was unheard of at the time. She started her academic career at a missionary school. Then, the couple moved to Calcutta, where Anandibai learned English, as well as Sanskrit. 

Around this time, at the age of 14, Anandibai became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. Due to health complications and a lack of available healthcare, the baby passed after only 10 days. This tragic loss spurred Anandibai to study medicine and advocate for education in healthcare for women in India. 

Anandibai had a strong desire to learn, but her husband was just as, if not more invested in her education, which was uncommon in the 1800s. He would become upset if she was cooking or cleaning instead of studying. He wanted her to study medicine and create her own identity in the world, and his fervency drove her to study even harder. 

Gopalrao and Anandibai decided that they would travel to the United States to further Anandibai’s medical education. They reached out to missionaries for shelter and help in the U.S., but they said they would only help if the couple converted to Christianity from Hinduism. This was not an option for them, but their wants would soon be met when Theodicia Carpenter came across their story. Mrs. Carpenter was a missionary in New Jersey who read about the couple’s story and was inspired by Anandibai’s want to study medicine, and her husband’s desire to support his wife. She wrote the couple offering them accomodations in the U.S. and exchanged many letters in the meantime discussing everything from their culture and religion to the upcoming move to America.  

Although Gopalrao now could not move to the U.S. due to work, he still strongly encouraged Anandibai to go and study. Before her departure, in 1883, she addressed a public hall, where she expressed her feelings of disappointment in not only the lack of female doctors in India, but also in the lack of education for the individuals in midwifery. During this speech she publicly volunteered herself as a resource for her community upon her return. 

In 1883, she started her venture to the United States, even though her health was on the decline going into the trip. Knowing this, her husband still encouraged her to go and to be an example for all women in India. She traveled from Calcutta to New York, where she met Mrs. Carpenter in June of 1883. Upon her arrival she wrote to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania asking for admission to their program, which she received from the dean, at the age of 19. This was a significant program as it was the second women’s medical program in the world. During her studies she concentrated on Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos. 

While in the U.S., Anandibai’s health started to rapidly decline due to the unfamiliar weather and diet. The dean of the college, Rachel Bodley, noticed this and had Anandibai move in with her where she was able to eat a diet she was used to during the remainder of her time at school. Anandibai graduated in March 1886 with her MD. 

Upon her graduation, she made her way back to India, where she arrived in late 1886. She received a grand welcome when she returned and was appointed as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the Albert Edward Hospital. In recognition of her accomplishments, she was sent a congratulations note from Queen Victoria. 

Unfortunately, soon after her return, she was unable to practice the medicine she had studied for so long due to her health. Anandibai passed away on February 26th, 1887,  at the age of 21 due to tuberculosis. Her husband Gopalrao had her cremated, as is tradition for individuals in the Hindu culture, but he broke customs as when he sent her remains back to the United States to be buried as a sign of her affections for the country. 

Even after her passing, Anandibai’s legacy and impact live on through writings that encourage education for women in India. There was also a television series about her life and her biography written in 1888. Although her life and career were not long, the impact of her ambition and desire to learn encouraged generations of women to pursue education.

If you would like to learn more about Anandibai Joshi our information was sourced from India Today, ScientificWomen.Net, and Drexel.