Sending a powerful man holding a lofty position to jail on charges of defamation is a difficult job even for a millennial woman. And it was beyond imagination for a woman in the early 19th century India. But this impossible job was made possible by a strong, determined, passionate physician and a social activist – Dr Kadambini Ganguly, the first practicing female doctor in South Asia.
Being humiliated and angry at the satirical cartoon printed in Bangabashi magazine that depicted Kadambini as a vixen who was leading her husband around by the nose – symbolising her dominance over her husband; Dr Kadambini filed a defamation lawsuit against the editor of Bangabashi magazine Maheshchandra Pal.
The misogynist editor did not even leave the chance to call her a "whore", which put him in jail for six months with a fine of Rs100. This was probably the first case filed by a Bengali woman of that time.
In that society, life for women was not an easy one. They were subject to confinement within the four walls of home, stepping outside without a veil was an unforgivable offense.
Born to an egalitarian family, Kadambini's father Brajakishore Bose, an ardent follower of Brahmo society, supported her all through her education.
Struggles in pushing against glass ceiling set on women's freedom
Kadambini was the first female to receive education in English at Brahmo Eden Female School in the then Dacca. Then, at Hindu Mahila Viddalaya which later was merged with Bethune School – she met her husband Dwarkanath Ganguly, the headmaster of the school.
With an age gap of 17 years, widower Dwarkanath's marriage to Kadambini, an educated woman, was unacceptable to his relatives and a section of modern Brahmos. Even his best friend Shibnath Shastri did not attend their wedding.
Fights to get admitted into Calcutta University and Calcutta Medical College
It was Kadambini's dream to get admitted into Calcutta Medical College. As a first step towards her dream, she wanted to get enrolled at Calcutta University. But during then, the university was not allowing female students to study there.
Thanks to Dwarkanath who fought for the approval of letting her sit for the entrance test. Kadambini passed the test with a good score and got admitted into the university. After graduating in Arts, she thought she was just a few miles away from her dream. But another roadblock appeared in her way – Calcutta Medical College was not allowing female students either back then.
Dwarkanath again fought for her admission into Calcutta Medical College. Finally in 1884, she got admitted into the college as the first female student.
Her admission into a medical college also stirred controversy in the society. Some professors at her college did not like her studying there. However, she received a scholarship of Rs20 per month from the government. But a vindictive professor failed her in a paper that shattered her dream of having a certificate of bachelor's degree in medicine. She only got the certificate of licentiate in medicine and surgery.
Her indomitable spirit did not let her stop cherishing her career. When she completed her study, the then principal Dr JM Coates awarded her a diploma certificate on graduate of medical college of Bengal that allowed her to start private practice.
Though there is a common confusion about who was the first female doctor in India, Anandibai Gopi Joshi or Kadambini Ganguly – the answer is both of them. Anandibai was the first female doctor to receive medicine degree from the west while Kadambini was the first one who became the first practitioner of western medicine in India.
Support from Florence Nightingale and Anne Besant
Florence Nightingale forwarded her helping hands towards Kadambini's unyielding passion for medicine. Nightingale wrote a recommendation letter to her friend for Kadambini to appoint her in Lady Dufferin Women's Hospital.
With Nightingale's recommendation, Kadambini joined Lady Dufferin at Rs300 per month – in today's scale, it would be around Rs4.5 lakhs. But as she did not have a bachelor's degree in medicine, the British lady doctors started looking down upon her. She was often treated as a midwife.
It was difficult for a Bangali mother of eight children to study further. But breaking all the shackles on her feet, Kadambini decided to pursue further studies in England. Leaving her children in the care of her elder sister, Kadambini travelled to England for higher studies.
From Scottish College, she received a Triple Diploma degree. She specialised in gynaecology and paediatrics. She was the only woman among the 14 successful candidates – definitely a golden chapter for the Indian women.
The turning point in her career
After she returned from England, she was finally appointed as a senior doctor at Lady Dufferin Hospital. Her private practice also saw a boom. She was also appointed to serve the royal family members in India as a doctor.
First woman to speak at the Indian National Congress
Besides being a doctor, Kadimbini was a powerhouse for the emancipation and empowerment of women. Women were not allowed to participate at the Indian National Congress. In 1889, Kadambini led five other women and participated at the congress for the first time – opening the door for women in the congress. Of the other five, Rabindranath Tagore's elder sister Sharnakumar Devi and her daughter Sarla Devi Chowdhurani were there.
Kadambini also became the first woman to give a lecture in English at the congress in 1890.
Zee Bangla is going to telecast a series on Dr Kadambini, the first Bengali female practicing doctor, soon.