On February 24, 1883 18-year-old Ananabai Joshee announced her intentions to leave India and attend higher education in the United States. She would be the first Indian woman to do so. “In my humble opinion,” declared Joshee, addressing a packed room of Bengalese neighbors, acquaintances and fellow Hindus who had gathered at Serampore College, “there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one.”
Though Joshee would indeed go on to become the first Indian woman to study medicine in America, she would not live long enough to fulfill her goal of serving Hindu women when she returned. However, her ambition and short-lived success would help blaze a new trail for future generations of Indian lady doctors: After Joshee’s educational victory, many medically-minded Indian women would follow in her footsteps.
Joshee was born with the name Yamuna on May 30, 1865 into a high-caste Brahmin family in Maharashtra, near Bombay. Her father Ganpatrao, straying from orthodox Hindu customs regarding women and girls, encouraged Joshee’s education and enrolled her in school from an early age. Joshee’s mother, however, was both emotionally and physically abusive. As Joshee would later recall: “My mother never spoke to me affectionately. When she punished me, she used not just a small rope or thong, but always stones, sticks and live charcoal.”
When Joshee was six, Ganpatrao recruited a distant family relative named Gopalrao Joshee to tutor her. Three years into this arrangement, her tutor received a job promotion at the postal service in another city. There are few records of this time, but at some point, Yamuna and Gopalrao’s tutoring relationship became a betrothal, and they married on March 31, 1874. As was Maharashtrian custom, Yamuna changed her name upon marriage to Ananabai, which means “joy of my heart.”
Joshee was only nine, but at the time it was not uncommon for a Hindu girl to be married so young. What was unusual was that one of Gopalrao’s terms for marrying Yamuna was that he continue to direct her education, as medical historian Sarah Pripas documents in her dissertation on international medical students in the U.S. Throughout their marriage, he took an active role in maintaining Joshee’s education, teaching her Sanskrit and English, and ultimately securing means to move her to America for higher education.
By the time Joshee was 15, it appears she was already interested in medicine. At that point Gopalrao wrote a letter to an American Presbyterian missionary stationed in Kolhapur, asking for assistance in bringing Joshee to America for medical study. Gopalrao’s correspondence asking for help from the Presbyterian Church was published in the Missionary Review, an American periodical. But the church declined to assist Joshee, because she had no intention to convert from Hindu to Christianity per request of the church to serve as a “native” missionary.
She would have to find another way. Still, this correspondence wasn’t entirely fruitless: An American woman named Theodicia Carpenter read about Joshee’s situation in the Missionary Review and promptly began a long distance correspondence with Joshee. Later, when Joshee did travel to America, Carpenter would housed her and helped her pick a university.
Even though Gopalrao was deeply invested in Joshee, this relationship was also marked with physical abuse, which Gopalrao seemed to have wielded to keep Joshee focused on her education. Sociologist Meera Kosambi attempts to piece together Joshee’s public and private lives in her article “Retrieving a Fragmented Feminist Image,” revealing a seeming ambivalence toward her husband’s treatment. In a letter that Joshee wrote while studying in America, she tells Gopalrao that “It is very difficult to decide whether your treatment of me was good or bad … It seems to have been right in view of its ultimate goal; but, in all fairness, one is compelled to admit that it was wrong, considering its possible effects on a child’s mind.”
Despite her husband’s role in motivating her education, Joshee was not merely a passenger to her own life. An 1880 letter to Carpenter shows that Joshee’s decision to pursue study in women’s medicine was her own, driven by personal experience with illness and observing the struggles of the women around her. “As a rule we Indian women suffer from innumerable trifling diseases,” she wrote, “unnoticed until they grow serious … fifty percent die in the prime of their youth of disease arising partly through ignorance and loathsomeness to communicate of the parties concerned, and partly through the carelessness of their guardians or husbands.”
This belief echoed through the halls of Serampore College three years later when she announced her decision to study in abroad in the service of Hindu women. In her speech, she explained that Hindu women were reluctant to seek care from male physicians. And even though there were European and American missionary women physicians in India, they did not appreciate or honor the customs of Hindu patients. Together, as Joshee pointed out, these complications left Hindu women with inadequate medical care.
At the samet ime as she faced obstacles from American Protestants who wished to see her convert before studying in America, Joshee was also facing opposition from other Hindus who doubted that she would maintain Hindu customs while living in the West. Yet Joshee’s commitment to her religious beliefs remained firm. As she told the crowd at Serampore College, “I will go as a Hindu, and come back here to live as a Hindu.” As Pripas says, “She wasn’t just wanting to treat Indian women; she specifically wanted to serve Hindu women.”
Joshee’s speech earned her the support of her Hindu community. And in light of her success, she received a donation of 100 Rupees, which, combined with the money she saved from selling the jewelry her father had given her afforded her passage to America. Finally, after years of planning, she set sail from Calcutta on April 7, 1883.
Joshee arrived in New York on June 4, 1883 where she was met by Carpenter. Joshee lived with Carpenter through the summer of 1883 while she decided which medical school to attend. She eventually decided on Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which had both a positive reputation and a robust international student body.
Though the college’s embrace of international students was an important factor in training foreign women as physicians when their home countries denied them that opportunity, Pripas warns against viewing it as an international beacon for progress and gender equality. International students’ attendance at the college was part of a larger effort at religious and imperial expansion as many of these students were brought to the college by American Protestant missionaries overseas. The end goal of educating these women was for them to return to their home counties after training and serve as native missionary physicians.
Joshee did not enroll as a Protestant; nor did she return to India as one. “In this regard, Joshee was unique,” says Pripas. Even throughout her studies in America, she continued to wear her sari and maintain a vegetarian diet. She was aware that Hindus in India would be watching to see if she kept her promise to return Hindu, and she was openly critical of missionaries and religious dogmatism. So by maintaining public display of her religion and culture, she both satisfied her Hindu community and subverted the religious imperialism embedded in the college’s mission.
At the college, Joshee focused on women’s healthcare, specifically gynecology and obstetrics. Even in her studies, Joshee integrated non-Western medical practice. In her research, Pripas highlights that Joshee used her own translations of Sanskrit texts in her thesis, showing a preference for traditional women’s knowledge over interventional birthing techniques, like use of the forceps. In 1886, at the age of 20, Joshee graduated with a U.S. degree in medicine—an unprecedented achievement for an Indian woman.
Just before graduation day, Joshee received an offer from the governor minister of Kolhapur in India to serve as “Lady Doctor of Kolhapur.” In this position, she would receive a monthly salary and run the women’s ward at Albert Edward Hospital, a local hospital in Kolhapur. Joshee accepted the position, which she intended to take up after further training in the United States. However, Joshee fell ill with tuberculosis sometime prior to graduation, and she was forced to return home before finishing her plans for further study.
Joshee returned to India in November of 1886 with rapidly declining health. Though she received a combination of Western and Ayurvedic treatment, nothing could be done to save her. She died in February 1887 at the age of 22, never having the chance to run the women’s ward at Albert Edward.
Joshee’s graduation was soon followed by more Indian women. In 1893, seven years after Joshee, Gurubai Karmarkar also graduated from Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and returned to India, where she mainly treated women at the American Marathi Mission in Bombay. In 1901, Dora Chatterjee, described as a “Hindu Prince’s Daughter,” graduated from the college; back in India, she established the Denny Hospital for Women and Children in Hoshiarpur. Though Joshee was the first, she certainly was not the last Indian woman to study abroad and return home to care for other women.
In her biography of Joshee, 19th century writer Caroline Dall asked, “If not yourself, whom would you like to be?” Joshee simply answered, “No one.” Despite a short life marked by abuse and religious discrimination, Joshee accomplished what she set out to do: to become a Hindu lady doctor. And while Joshee would not have wished to be anyone but herself, there is no doubt that many Hindu women and girls would aspire to be like her and follow in the trail she had blazed.