Know Kadambini

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We share this special edition on the occasion of Dr. Kadambini Bose Ganguly’s birth anniversary. In this heartfelt narrative, the author shares their admiration for Dr. Kadambini Bose Ganguly, the first female practitioner in Western medicine in South Asia. The author, a female doctor herself, reflects on her own journey and pays tribute to Dr. Kadambini Bose Ganguly’s enduring legacy.

C for cat…R for rose…O for owl…C for cat again (!)…I for India…N for nose…l shouted into the ..well, air! After all, l was on a wireless, hands-free contraption…and no,l was not teaching the alphabet to any child! I was spelling out the name of a medicine for fever, to a frantic parent, all the while trying my best to not burn the poor vegetables in the wok! When l finally get the correct spelling across to the lady,l feel no less victorious than the recent Wimbledon tennis champion! This is routine for me… yes,l cross the line every day and bring my work home. In fact, there isn’t a line and if there is one, it is so thin, so blurred that it is nonexistent! And yet …l pause, and reflect a while on how relatively easily l am multitasking, being a doctor, a child specialist to be precise, and a mother, in addition to being a wife, a daughter, a daughter-in-law..the list can stretch a bit. I have had extremely supportive parents, a society that encouraged my education and l am blessed with a life partner who has not only supported me in my higher studies and profession but also frequently done it at the cost of his comfort and convenience. Must it have been the same for Kadambini, l wonder?

Would things have been as smooth for her?

There! I have got it all inverted, as usual! Before you all conclude that l have lost it completely, let me start from the beginning! The Kadambini l am talking about is none other than Dr Kadambini Bose Ganguly, the very first female practitioner in Western medicine, not just in India, but the whole of South Asia. And what a coincidence! Today, the 18th of July happens to be her birthday! What better day to remember this exemplary woman, who has a number of other firsts in her kitty. She was the first woman to gain admission to Calcutta Medical College; she was also the first female speaker at the Indian National Congress. She has the additional distinction of becoming the first woman to pass the Calcutta University entrance examination and was one of the first graduates from Bethune College! Whew! What a woman!

At a time when most things were against her, Kadambini had the good fortune of being born to a progressive father, Brajakishore Bose, who was a passionate supporter of Brahmo Samaj. He was the headmaster of the Bhagalpur school in the Bengal Presidency, which is modern-day Bihar. Brajakishore worked tirelessly for the emancipation of women and believed strongly in education being the most powerful tool for the same.
The family was originally from Chandsi, Barisal, which is now in Bangladesh.

Kadambini’s battles were preordained. Society not favouring, she was schooled by her father initially at the English medium Brahmo Eden Female school, Dacca, and later at Hindu/Bangla Mahila Vidyalaya, Ballygunge, Calcutta.
The Mahila Vidyalaya later merged with Bethune school in 1878 and it was from here that Kadambini appeared for the Calcutta University entrance examination and passed with flying colours in 1880.

Here at Bethune school, Kadambini met her future soul mate and husband and her biggest supporter, Dwarkanath Ganguly, who was himself a prominent Brahmo Samaj leader. Their union was frowned upon by society for more reasons than one. He was 17 years her senior, her teacher, and a widower. Their marriage, in 1883, was unanimously shunned by the Brahmos.

To continue, Kadambini studied science and graduated from Calcutta University, along with Chandramukhi Bose, in 1883.. the first ever Indian woman to graduate during the British Raj.

Soon after her graduation, Kadambini embarked on her dream to pursue medicine, inspite of societal speculation that marriage would have dampened her ambitions and aspirations!

However, Calcutta Medical College was not admitting female students yet.

Her staunchest advocate, Dwarkanath, backed her and threatened Calcutta Medical College with legal consequences if Kadambini wasn’t allowed to study medicine. Finally, CMC relented and in 1884, Kadambini Bose Ganguly became the first woman to be enrolled into the college at a government scholarship of Rupees 20 per month, a development which enraged Bengal’s ‘ bhadraloks’, so much so that she was branded a whore, a courtesan by a Bengali periodical. Dwarkanath sued the magazine and sent the editor to jail with a fine of Rupees 100.

Even as a student at Calcutta Medical College, Kadambini continued to face opposition. She failed in a paper inspite of having performed well and lost out on earning her MB degree certificate in 1888! When she finally completed her studies at CMC, Kadambini was awarded her GBMC ( Graduate of Bengal Medical College )diploma. Now she was free to practice.

Her graduation in medicine was such an outstanding and inspiring achievement that it drew the attention of several stalwarts of the time, amongst them Florence Nightingale and Annie Besant. Both the women noted her success and determination amidst adversities and hailed it as a landmark in the journey of upliftment of long-suppressed, deserving womankind.

Florence Nightingale even mentioned in a letter that she had been asked to recommend Kadambini to Lady Dufferin Victoria Hospital Memorial College for any post.

That marriage did not only not hinder her, but actually became the wind beneath her wings, helping her fulfill her dreams, was something that stunned the society in general and women in particular, a fact acknowledged by no less than Florence Nightingale herself.

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Kadambini put to shame all her detractors when marriage and eight children ( of which 2 were stepchildren) later, she set her sights on studying further, abroad.

In 1893, putting aside all social conventions and prejudices, Kadambini left for England. She entrusted her children to her elder sister. She decided to appear for triple diploma courses in Medical Sciences at the Scottish College in Edinburgh and earned it in a matter of 4 months after training in Dublin, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Kadambini Bose Ganguly was the only female amongst the 14 successful candidates that year and the first woman to have brought such a laurel for India! What a woman, indeed!

And it doesn’t end here. She specialised in Paediatrics and Gynaecology as well!

This lady was also an expert in needlework and household chores!
Kadambini’s accomplishments don’t end here. She was a born crusader, always lending her voice to some fight, some cause. People from Assam will be intrigued to know that she reinforced her husband’s condemnation of the exploitation of the tea garden workers of Assam. She also looked into the condition of the female coal mine workers in Bihar and Odisha. She led from the front when it came to matters regarding women. In the 1890 session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta, Kadambini delivered a lecture in English, yet another first. She was a devoted patriot at heart and helped form an association to help Satyagraha workers in Transvaal, South Africa.
In 1915, at a medical conference, Kadambini made a vociferous protest against CMC’s practice of not enrolling women. Her words hit home and soon CMC brought about a major change in their policy and began to admit female students!

The female doctors of today have a lot to thank her for Dr Kadambini Bose Ganguly laid the foundation for generations of women after her, to brave all odds and fulfill aspirations, emboldened them to stand up to the society when it crossed their paths towards their goals and led by example, telling the world that there is nothing that a woman cannot achieve if she sets her heart on it!

I am a female doctor too, sure, but nowhere as accomplished as her and in much kinder circumstances..and so today, on her birthday,l bow my head to this great woman in respect and admiration and pray that l may prove worthy of being counted as one of her kind.

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