Indian physician Anandibai Joshi (1865–1887) was the first woman of Indian origin to study medicine and receive her M.D. degree in the United States. In 1886 Joshi also became one of the first Indian women to be trained in Western medicine. Although her career would be tragically cut short—Joshi died of tuberculosis months after returning to India—she may have accomplished yet another first, having been credited by some historians as the first Hindu woman to independently visit the United States.
Anandabai Joshi was married at age nine, according to the customs of the time, to a 25-year-old widower, on the condition that she be educated. When Joshi gave birth to a son five years later, the baby died shortly thereafter, with no medical care available to save him. This tragedy inspired her to become a doctor, and with the help of American missionaries she found an American sponsor. Joshi traveled to the United States on her own and began attending classes at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, receiving her M.D. degree at age 21. Her health was in steady decline, however, and on her return to India, despite accolades and an excellent job offer, she died soon after.
In 1870, a distant relative of the Joshi family, Gopalrao Joshi, moved to Kalyan to take a job as a postal clerk. Yamuna Joshi was five years old at the time she met 22-year-old Gopal, a widower. Ganapatrao Joshi was impressed by the young man's education and hired him to tutor his children in Sanskrit. Joshi was an eager pupil and very attached to her teacher, and when Gopal Joshi was transferred to a better-paying postal job in another city after several years, she was heartbroken. Her grandmother volunteered to take the eight-year-old girl to Alibag, this new city, and live there so that her studies could continue. Because Joshi was close to marriageable age, her parents agreed. Grandmother and granddaughter settled in Alibag, and Gopal made the transition from teacher to potential husband.
For strictly orthodox Brahmins, having a single and yet-unmarried daughter was a public embarrassment. Although they knew that Gopal had a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, given that he believed in the remarriage of widows and in education for women, he had been an excellent tutor. When they approached Gopal on the topic of marriage, he was interested but insisted that their daughter be educated in other subjects, including English. Unbeknownst to the Joshis, after both sides had agreed to the match, Gopal secretly visited a widow in Poona a few days later, hoping to marry her instead. The woman, on learning that he was only a postal clerk, refused to meet with him, leaving Gopal to return home and prepare for marriage to his nine-year-old fiancée. On their wedding day, one day before she turned ten, he decided to change her name from Yamuna to Anandabai.
True to his word, Gopal taught his child bride to read and write in Marathi, their native language, as well as in English. (India was a colony of Great Britain at the time, and English was the language of those who wished to advance in society.) On the darker side, he was also a domineering husband who hit Joshi when he was displeased with her work. Once he beat her when he came home to find her cooking with her grandmother instead of studying. The neighbors were dumfounded; most husbands became angry with wives who were reluctant to cook.
Now called Aandi by family and friends, Joshi proved to be an extremely intelligent and resilient girl with an aptitude for learning, and she eventually became fluent in English. Her grandmother eventually returned home to Maharastra, and Gopal, wishing to put further distance between his wife and her family, applied for transfers. The couple moved several times over the next few years.
The Joshis eventually moved to the southern city of Calcutta (Kolkata), which was culturally different from their Bengali upbringing. Wives in Calcutta kept their heads and faces covered, walked behind their husbands in public, and would not be seen talking or, worse, laughing with their spouse. Because Gopal and Joshi would walk and talk together freely in public, it was assumed that they were intimate and not married, which was a very bad thing. This stressful interlude took its toll on both Joshis’ health, and Anandabai in particular would never fully recover.
Joshi was living in Calcutta at age 14 when she bore a child; due to the lack of modern medical care, the baby died ten days later. In her grief, she pondered what could have been done to save the child and reasoned that things might have been different had a Hindu woman physician been available. She decided that she would become a doctor and serve women who, like herself, had no recourse to Western medicine. Over the next several years, she and her husband explored their options. After making enquiries, Gopal wrote to Royal Wilder, a U.S. missionary, to find out if there was a school where Joshi could study medicine and a job available for him. Wilder agreed to help the couple, but only if they were willing to convert from Hinduism to Christianity. While Gopal had been favorably impressed with the missionaries he met over the years, he refused. Wilder also published Gopal's inquiry in the Princeton Missionary Review, where it was seen by a New Yorker named Theodosia Carpenter.
Carpenter wrote to Joshi, offering her a place to stay in the United States should she be accepted to a school of medicine. Joshi happily replied, and a long correspondence ensued, during which the two women discussed Hindu culture and religion, the status of women, the effects of early marriage on women's health, and much more. Learning of Joshi's health concerns, Carpenter sent medicines which, though much appreciated, did not cure her ailments. Carpenter also conveyed the advice of a physician friend: Joshi should apply to the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, the world's first medical school for women.
The Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850 by Quakers who believed in women's rights and opposed the closed ranks of the medical establishment, which at the time was exclusively male. Joshi, now 19, impressed Rachel Bodley, dean of the medical college, and was accepted into the college's M.D. program. Gopal arranged that his wife travel to New York City from Calcutta in the company of two English women missionaries. Although Joshi was reluctant to make the trip without him, Gopal remained in India until he could find work in New York.
Joshi arrived in New York in 1883 and was greeted by Carpenter and her family, who took her in as their own. She enjoyed her stay with the Carpenters, although the cold, wet weather of the Northeastern United States took its toll on her health. At some point, Joshi had contracted tuberculosis, called consumption at the time, which was usually fatal. A wasting disease, it could linger in the background for years before causing disability and death. As it was, Joshi persevered in her studies while declining in health and was often wracked by a severe cough. Her studies and her new friendships influenced her outlook and behavior, and Gopal's letters expressed his worry that she was becoming Westernized.
Joshi received her Doctor of Medicine degree in March 1886, having completed a thesis titled “Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos.” She was lauded at her graduation as the first Indian woman to receive a medical degree. It was an accomplishment recognized on both sides of the Atlantic; both Joshi and the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania would receive congratulatory letters from England's Queen Victoria, among many others.
Gopal arrived in New York City in time to see his wife graduate, and the Joshis sailed for India later that year, with Anandabai's illness steadily worsening. They arrived in Bombay, India, to a grand reception and an appointment from the princely state of Kolhapur (part of Maharastra) for Joshi to be appointed physician-in-charge of the women's wing of its King Albert Edward Hospital. It was an honor she would not live to enjoy.
Joshi was by now well aware that she was suffering from tuberculosis. In spite of her Western medical degree, she decided to seek the help of Dr. Mehelende, a famous Ayurvedic (or traditional Hindu) physician. Dr. Mehelende practiced in nearby Poona, and when Gopal took his wife in for a consultation, Mehelende refused to see her. In fact, he blamed the illness on her breaking of religious taboo. “This woman went to America. She lived alone with strangers, ate food forbidden to Brahmins by religion and brought shame on Brahmins,” he said, according to B.M.N. Murthy on Freedom First online.
As Joshi resigned herself to her illness, she received visits from many residents of Poona who praised her achievement; one letter from a local citizen even had a small amount of cash enclosed. Alhough kindly meant, this gift could not save her. Too sick to start her new job, Joshi languished for a few days, then died on February 26, 1887. She was 22.
Gopal Joshi sent his wife's ashes to Theodosia Carpenter, who buried them near her family's home in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is remembered in India as a feminist pioneer. In 2016, the Venusian crater Joshee—located at 5.5 degrees latitude and 288.8 degrees longitude—was named in Joshi's honor.
Dall, Caroline Healey, Dr. Anandabai Joshee: A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai, Roberts Brothers, 1888.
The Telegraph (Calcutta, India), http://www.telegraphindia.com/ (September 4, 2007), Malavika Karlekar, “Elusive Voices: The Lives and Letters of Anandabai Joshi.”