Did you know that a year before Oxford University started taking in women students, the University of Calcutta had begun to accept female candidates, in 1878? One of them, Kadambini Ganguly, went on to become one of India’s first women physicians, proving what could be accomplished as a working woman, a wife and a mother – in 19th century India. This is the story of how Ganguly challenged a system that was determined to hold her back.
Kadambini Ganguly (nee Basu) was born on 18th July 1861, in Bhagalpur, Bihar, to progressive parents. Her father, Braja Kishore Basu, a reformer with the Brahmo Samaj, was the headmaster of a school in Bhagalpur, and understood the importance of education.
While growing up, it was only natural that Kadambini would be a trailblazer keen to pursue higher studies at a time when most young girls dropped out of school. It was in 1882 that she, along with Chandramukhi Basu (a Christian from Dehradun) created history when they secured a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Calcutta. They were the first two women graduates, not only in Calcutta or even India, but in the entire British Empire!
After acquiring a degree in Arts, Kadambini decided to pursue medicine and applied for admission to the Calcutta Medical College. To her dismay, her application was turned down as they did not have provisions for women. However, after being threatened with legal action from some Brahmo leaders who were spearheading the movement for female emancipation in India, the college authorities relented.
Shortly after, while still studying, she married Dwarkanath Ganguly, a 39-year-old widower with six children, who was once her school headmaster. He was also a Brahmo reformer. However, this union caused quite a stir even among the reformist Brahmo Samaj and not one member accepted the invitation to her wedding.
In 1886, Kadambini received her GBMC (Graduate of Bengal Medical College), becoming the first South Asian female physician trained in Western medicine to graduate in South Asia. Within a couple of years, she was appointed as a doctor at the Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital on a monthly salary of Rs 300, and she served here until her death. Meanwhile, she also ran a thriving private practice and her patients included women from the Nepalese royal family. The Queen Mother of Nepal gave her many gifts, including a small pony.
Kadambini was totally committed to her patients and sometimes worked day and night. But this dedication was questioned by conservative Hindu society. In 1891, Bangabasi, an orthodox Bengali journal, called her the equivalent of a prostitute for working late into the night. No woman from a respectable family would be ‘out there’ like her. Furious, Kadambini’s husband filed a case against the editor, Maheschandra Pal, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and fined Rs 100.
Bangabasi, an orthodox Bengali journal, called her the equivalent of a prostitute
Despite the many hardships she faced, Kadambini’s determination was unshakable. In 1892, she went to the United Kingdom for further training. On her return, she began to participate in political and social work alongside her husband. They became forerunners of women’s emancipation and worked to improve working conditions of women coal miners in Eastern India. Kadambini organised several public gatherings to show her support for the freedom movement.
In 1915, when the Calcutta Medical College did not admit female candidates at their Medical Conference, Kadambini led public protests, as a result of which the college was forced to revise its policies.
Kadambini passed away on 7th October 1923, at the age of 61. She will be remembered as a champion of women’s rights, thanks to her unwavering vision and true grit.
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