Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Vidhipssa Mohan
Kadambini Ganguly (1862-1923) is one of the earliest women physicians from South Asia. Ganguly was born in Bihar on 18 July 1862 when India was still under British rule. Ganguly’s father, Braja Kishore Basu was a renowned figure in the Brahmo community and Ganguly was raised in a household strongly influenced by the Bengal Renaissance. She belonged to an upper caste Bengali community that opposed women’s education. However, Ganguly fought against all odds to overcome that.
India’s first female graduate
Ganguly started her education at Bang Mahila Vidyalaya and then received BA from the University of Calcutta in 1883 being the first woman to graduate in India (Rao, Karmin & Motiwala, 2007). H.C. Reynolds, The Director of Public Instruction remarked that Ganguly’s graduation was ‘the most notable event in the history of female education in Bengal.’ Ganguly came to the University of Edinburgh in 1893 and received an LRCP qualification which enabled her to practise medicine. In the 1890s the Royal College of Physicians was highly renowned throughout the world and prejudice against women students had just started to abate (Karlekar, 2012). Ganguly made a space for herself in the medical field when it was mostly dominated by men even in countries like USA and UK. It is interesting to note how Ganguly continued to succeed in her field even when she was exposed to a foreign culture during her time in Edinburgh.
After her return from Britain, she began to practice obstetrics and gynaecology in Lady Dufferin Hospital in Calcutta. On February 20, 1888, Florence Nightingale wrote about Ganguly to a friend:
“Do you know or could tell me anything about Mrs Ganguly, or give me any advice? 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 also wrote in the above quoted letter that she had been asked to recommend Kadambini to Lady Dufferin “for any posts about the female wards of Calcutta”.
Fighting for societal changes
Kadambini combined her work as a doctor with social philanthropy and political activities. She returned to India to practice medicine and also actively campaigned for women’s rights in the conservative society that resisted change. She was one of the six women delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress in 1889, and even organised the Women’s Conference in Calcutta in 1906 in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal. “Breaking social norms was not easy. Her profession demanded visiting patients at night and she attracted criticism from many corners. One popular vernacular newspaper even called her a whore but she and her husband fought a legal battle to win compensation and got the editor jailed for six months,” Rajib Ganguly, 58, Kadambini’s great grandson (Bhattacharya, 2017)
In 1908, she had also presided over a Calcutta meeting for expressing sympathy with Satyagraha being practiced by Indian labourers in Transvaal, South Africa. She formed an association to collect money with the help of fundraisers to assist the workers. In 1914 she presided over the meeting of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, which was held in Calcutta to honour Mohandas Gandhi during his Calcutta visit.
Ganguly decided to continue her education even after her marriage and received a lot of backlash for her decision. Apart from her professional career, she was a mother of eight children.
Till a year before her death, she accompanied by Bengali poet, Kamini Roy, worked for a government committee to enquire about the conditions of women miners in the Bihar and Orissa areas. After serving her nation through medicine and her social activities, Ganguly passed away on October 3rd 1923.
Bhattacharya, S, 2017. Google Doodle for Rukhmabai Raut, but India’s first woman doctor Kadambini Ganguly remains forgotten, Hindustan Times, 23/11/2017, available online at [https://www.hindustantimes.com/kolkata/google-doodle-for-rukhmabai-raut-but-india-s-first-woman-doctor-kadambini-ganguly-remains-forgotten/story-FhKVY8OS4WFWY8PoQ9phBM.html]
Karlekar, M, 2012. Anatomy of Change: Early Women Doctors, India International Centre Quarterly, 39, No. 3/4, pp.95-106.
Rao, A.R, Karmin, O and Motiwala, H.G, 2007. The Life And Work Of Dr. Kadambini Ganguly, The First Modern Indian Woman Physician, The Journal Of Urology, 117:4, pp.354.