June 09, 2017

Riddle me this. A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital. Just as he's about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, "I can't operate—that boy is my son!"

Who did you instinctively think the doctor is?

In a research conducted by students at Boston University, only 14% of the adult respondents, came up with the mother as the answer to this question. While a female physician is now no longer likely to turn heads, society still has deep rooted biases against women in medicine.

Dr. Mario Vaz, who heads the Department of History of Medicine at St. John's Research Institute in Bengaluru is trying to change that. He is chronicling the lives of some incredible female doctors through history, who changed the face of medicine for generations of women to follow. Dr. Vaz has dedicated the last two years of his life to find these inspiring legacies.

Dr. Mario Vaz, head of the Department of History of Medicine in St. John's Research Institute, has been researching the lives of pioneering women in medicine.


"I was researching the history of our institute when I discovered Dr. Sr. Mary Glowery, one of the first women medical missionaries in South India, whose work inspired the creation of St. John's Medical College and Hospital. In order to understand her work, I needed to find out about the other women in medicine in that period - both in India and abroad," says Dr. Vaz.

In his talks about 'Pioneering Women Physicians – Their Triumphs and Travails', Dr. Vaz recounts more than 20 anecdotes about the long journey that women doctors have traversed.

Kadambini Ganguly, the first woman to graduate from an Indian medical institute. Image Source

Calcutta University created history in 1878, when it allowedKadambini Ganguly to take the BA entrance examination. Ganguly later became the first woman to be accepted into Calcutta Medical College in 1884, despite hostility from male faculty members. She completed her degree from England, and became one of the first women doctors in India with a private practice.

Dr. Vaz also speaks of Anandibai Joshi. Born in 1865, Joshi fought to study at the first women's medical college in Philadelphia.Since leaving home for the West had its taboos, she was accompanied by her grandmother. She returned to India, but within a year, passed away after contracting tuberculosis.

Anandibai Joshi was the first female of Indian origin to graduate with a medical degree in the United States. Image Source

Rukhmabai, who was married at the age of 12, fought for a divorce when her husband came to get her after she reached menarche. She studied medicine in England and practiced as a physician for many years in Surat, and was instrumental in the enactment of the Age of Consent, 1891.

In other parts of the world too, women of this era were fighting their way back into medicine. In 1847, the unanimous opinion of the all-male student body of the Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College) in New York was, "…to every branch of scientific education, the door should be open to all; and the application of Elizabeth Blackwell to become a member of our class meets our entire approbation…". Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell went on to become the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. 

Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry, a distinguished British military surgeon, chose to live as a man to pursue a career as a surgeon till his death. Image Source

In 1865, the British army and medical fraternity were thrown off guard at the announcement that the very controversial Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry, a 65-year-old distinguished army surgeon, was actually Margaret Ann Bulkley, a woman. In the same year, Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to get a medical qualification in Britain, and subsequently, the first female dean of a British medical school.

It is because of these women, that more and more women now find it easier to opt for medicine as a career. Today, India produces 4500 more women doctors than male doctors each year. Shockingly though, only 17% of them actually end up practicing. Hopefully, the inspiring stories of pioneering women in medicine will change this.