The first woman of Indian-origin to study and graduate with a degree in western medicine in the United States.
She became a mother by the age of 14, but her child, a son, died soon after his birth. This affected her severely, both physically and emotionally. Still a child herself, the loss of her own child made her aspire to become a doctor. The majority of Indian women were at that time unable or unwilling to go to a male physician, and Anandibai felt that as a woman doctor she would be able to serve other Indian women.
In 1883, Anandibai travelled to the United States, to the home of Mrs Theodicia Carpenter with whom she had established correspondence a few years earlier. With the support of the Carpenters, Anandibai was able to secure admission to the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) where she obtained her medical degree in two years - an astonishing achievement in an era that refused even simple literacy to most Indian women!
Her studies, and the pace at which she completed her course was exacting and exhausting; and she had to summon all her inner reserves of strength to soldier on till the end. Already in poor health when she travelled from India to the US, this did not improve: Dean Bodley of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania looked after Anandibai personally when she was too ill to live on her own. The strain of mastering English was so great that she temporarily forgot Marathi.
But she gained in maturity and wisdom, her intellect honed and sharpened by the intensity of her studies. She could lucidly articulate and convey her thoughts to large audiences. As Anandibai grew in intellectual stature she became more respectfully independent in her thoughts and actions vis-a-vis her husband and was unafraid to take painful decisions. She could publicly defend herself and her nation and was very clear as to what she wanted to do in the future. By the end of her brief life she had outstripped her much older husband both in intellect and in integrity while remaining ever grateful for the path of education he had opened up for her.
Anandibai was not merely India's first woman to attain a medical degree in western medicine: she was also a feminist and a nationalist at a time when women were a rarity in the public sphere. Although not a scientist in the proper sense of the term, Anandibai wrote and researched on matters of public health while still a medical student. She was an intelligent woman who was dispassionately perceptive of herself and her society - one who had independent views on contemporary gender issues. She was fearless in pointing out the obstacles to women's education in India, and yet was firmly anchored to an Indian cultural and nationalistic identity.
Anandibai chose a medical career because she wanted to serve other women who had inadequate health care. She defended this choice publicly and against heavy odds. Her personal life, too, was a continuous struggle on many fronts. Given the dramatic and eventful nature of her life, it is difficult to believe that she died so tragically young and despite treatment from both Western medical doctors and traditional Indian vaidyas. After her cremation according to Hindu rites, Gopalrao sent Anandibai's ashes to her 'American family' rather than immersing them in a holy river as was the usual practice. These ashes are buried in Mrs Carpenter's family lot in a cemetery in New York State. In death, too, their closeness endures.
Even today the health care of Indian women is in a sorry state. Anandibai's story is best remembered for the many milestones that still have to be achieved in this sphere. Although her premature death was a blow to Indian women's emancipation, Anandibai Joshee remains an inspiring figure for future generations.
Text: Based on biographical notes by Meera Kosambi and Aban Mukherji
Artistic Rendition: Dilip Kumar Chanda