Guwahati: Kadambini Ganguly was one of the first female graduates in the entire British Empire (along with Chandramukhi Bose) and became the first female practitioner of western medicine not just in India, but in the whole of South Asia.
Born Kadambini Bose, to an emancipated father and headmaster Brajakishore Bose who was also an ardent follower of the Brahmo Samaj ideals, Kadambini was always pushing against the glass ceiling set on women’s freedom at a time when ill practices such as child marriage and sati were strife.
She was born in Chandsi, in Bengal’s Barisal district (now in Bangladesh) and even at that time received English education – first at the Brahmo Eden Female School, Dacca, and then at Hindu Mahila Vidyalay, Ballygunj, Calcutta. The second school was later renamed as Banga Mahila Bidyalay in 1876; two years later, it merged with Bethune School.
It was at Bethune School that Kadambini met her future husband who probably had the biggest role in helping her realize her full human potential. Her mentor Dwarakanath Ganguly was 17 years her senior and an ardent supporter of Brahmo Samaj and women’s emancipation.
Despite being a busy mother bringing up eight children, including two stepchildren, Ganguly went to England and obtained further training from Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1892.
Kadambini wanted to appear for the entrance exam at the University of Calcutta (CU), and so did a Bengali Christian girl from Dehra Dun – Chandramukhi Basu. But the varsity was still not admitting female students.
Sarala got married and couldn’t appear for the test, but Kadambini cleared the exam just a mark away from first class. The Junior Board of Examiners declared Chandramukhi to have attained the entrance standard in the examination of 1877.
While Kadambini took admission in at the College Class of Bethune School, Chandramukhi joined the Free Church of Scotland College. Both women passed their First Arts (FA) examination in 1880 leading to Kadambini’s dream to get admission at the Calcutta Medical College (CMC) – then known as the Medical College, Bengal. Again, she found her road to success barred as the medical college didn’t admit female students though Madras Medical College had started admitting female students from 1875.
Kadambini took admission to Bethune College again with Chandramukhi, and graduated in 1882 from Calcutta University.
Dwarakanath again fought for Kadambini to study at the CMC and finally, in 1884, she became the first woman to get admitted to the Calcutta Medical College.
Kadambini and Dwarakanath got married in 1883 and the decision didn’t sit right with many of the Hindus and a section of the Brahmos. Thirty-nine-year-old Dwarakanath was a widower and some refused to recognise their marriage.
Together with his call for women’s emancipation and his wife’s admission to a medical college despite being a woman, the couple’s beliefs drew controversial ire from the society. Life would not be easy.
A professor was so against it that he failed Kadambini in a paper which led to her losing out on her MB degree certificate in 1888. So, she got only the certificate of First LMS examination from CU.
When she completed her studies in CMC, as per the practice, the then-principal Dr JM Coates awarded her GMCB diploma that allowed her to start a private practice as a doctor. This was before CWC came under the jurisdiction of Calcutta University.
Such was Kadambini Ganguly’s achievements as a pioneering woman that even Florence Nightingale heard about her. She wrote to a friend in February 1888 exclaiming at Kadambini’s passion for medicine.
Annie Besant also hailed Kadambini as a “symbol that India’s freedom would uplift India’s womanhood” in her book ‘How India Wrought For Freedom’.
Finally, Kadambini decided to go for further medical studies in England. Breaking all conventions, the Bengali woman left her children to the care of her elder sister and travelled to England in 1893.
Empowered by her incredible will power, Dwarakanath’s unfailing support, and the help of her cousin Monomohan Ghosh who was a London-based barrister, Kadambini took the decision to appear for triple diploma courses in medical sciences at the Scottish College at Edinburgh.
Since she already had a BA degree from CU and a GMCB from CMC, she completed her triple diploma in a very short time and only had to appear in the last exam.
She also specialized in pediatrics and gynecology.
The three diplomas she obtained were: Licentiate of the College of Physicians, Edinburg (LRCP), Licentiate of the College of Surgeons, Glasgow (LRCS), and Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Dublin (LFPS).
Kadambini Ganguly’s life took a turn when she returned from England. She was finally accepted as a senior doctor at Lady Dufferin Hospital and she resumed her private practice as well which boomed and soon made her leave her hospital job.
Kadambini suffered from high blood pressure but never let it come between her and her work. On October 3, 1923, 63-year-old Kadambini conducted a critical operation on a patient. She came home home wilting and on the same evening, passed away.
Despite being born at a time when women becoming doctors was a fairy-tale aspiration, and despite having to bring up eight children, and attend her socio-political activities, Kadambini Ganguly never compromised on her medical responsibilities.