Anandibai Joshi

“The voice of humanity is with me and

I must not fail. My soul is moved to help

the many who can not help themselves.”

Sometimes a woman’s life is so extraordinary, it’s hard to believe that no one has made a movie about her. Case in point: is Anandi Joshi. Her extraordinary story has everything: adversity, triumph, women’s health, and a strong female friendship that spanned oceans. But like every superhero deserving of a film franchise, Anandi started out as just an ordinary, curious kid.

Growing up in the once-prosperous coastal town of Kalyan, India, a young Yamuna (as she was known at birth) wanted more than anything to learn—a big dream at a time when women were denied even basic literacy. Fortunately, her father encouraged her passions and found her a teacher, a postal worker named Gopalrao, who began giving her lessons. Yamuna’s family was part of a particularly high-class caste but had recently lost their fortune, so when Gopal was transferred to a new city, Yamuna was terrified that she would have to stop her lessons and start living the life of a typical Brahmin girl. “I thought that I should never learn any more,” she later said, “and I would rather have died.” To solve the problem of both her education and the financial burden on her family, Yamuna and Gopal married when Gopalrao was twenty-six years old and Yamuna was only nine.

Which we can all agree is pretty terrible. The ingrained social institution of child marriage prevented girls from attending school after they were wed and generally kept them powerless; the practice wouldn’t be outlawed in India for another fifty-five years.

But from what we can tell, Gopal was—at least in one way—not completely bound to the cultural mores of his day. He gave his young wife the name by which she would be known for the rest of her life—Anandibai, meaning “joy of my heart”—and respected her desire to learn. Anandi’s education continued after marriage and included lessons in English; she grew into relative independence and the belief that “no man or woman should depend upon another for maintenance and necessaries.”

Sadly, tragedy wasn’t far off. When Anandi was between twelve and fourteen years old, she bore a son who lived only ten days. Anandi was heartbroken, knowing that her baby might have stood a chance if she and Gopal had access to proper medical care. It was then that she decided to become a doctor. But doing so was easier said than done. When Anandi attempted to attend classes or go to hospitals in India, people were rather displeased (sorry, understatement: they would spit, throw rocks, and scream obscenities at her). On top of that abuse, she and her husband were living in an area where few people shared their Maharashtra Hindu customs, which included certain types of food, clothing, fasting days, and holidays. After moving north from Calcutta to Serampore and finding no new opportunities there, Anandi decided it was time to search farther afield—as in halfway around the world farther. So in 1880 Gopal wrote to the American missionary Royal Wilder to ask for Wilder’s help, explaining that he wanted to move to the United States so that his wife could study medicine. Wilder declined in a response he published in Princeton University’s Missionary Review. (Brief paraphrased summary: “Not unless you convert to Christianity!!!!! LOL.”)

The exchange caught the attention of one Theodicia Carpenter of Roselle, New Jersey, who happened to have picked up a copy of the journal while waiting for a dental appointment. Believing that the truly Christian thing was to be nice to people (and that ladies needed to stick together), Theodicia started writing letters to Anandi; over the next few years, the two women exchanged newspapers, hair, magazines, pictures, and flowers (in other words, the movie version would totally pass the Bechdel test). Anandi called Theodicia her “Aunt,” but also totally called out her privilege: “Your American widows may have difficulties and inconveniences to struggle with, but weighed in the scale against ours, all of them put together are but as a particle against a mountain.” Theodicia, in turn, sent medicine when Anandi was ill and said that her door was always open. But as much as she longed to see her friend, Anandi just could not afford the trip—as a Brahmin woman, she wasn’t even supposed to travel overseas.

Instead, Anandi took action. On February 24, 1883, with no notes or prepared remarks, she marched into the Serampore College Hall and gave a speech to the town—the first woman ever to do so. “There is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India,” she stated, “and I volunteer to qualify myself for one.” Unafraid even of excommunication, she declared that she would travel to the United States to learn and then return home to open a college for the instruction of women in medicine: “I do not fear it [excommunication] in the least….I will go as a Hindu, and come back here to live as a Hindu.” And then she dropped the proverbial mic and strutted outta there.

Her ploy totally worked. The director-general of the post office in India set up a fund for her education, and donations began pouring in from the governor general, lieutenant governor, chief justice, and more. Having raised enough for a single ship ticket, Anandi left her husband behind, with his blessing but, she wrote, “against the combined opposition of my friends & caste.” She was on a mission to “render to my poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of, and which they would rather die for than accept at the hand of a male physician.”

And so in June 1883, Anandi headed to New Jersey, finally meeting her “Aunt” Theodicia and becoming the first Hindu woman to set foot in America. Anandi, Theodicia, and other lady doctors had written in advance to Rachel Bodley, dean of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, to ask for admittance—which Anandi was granted, along with a scholarship to cover the remainder of her $325.50 degree and a place to live in the dean’s own house. Anandi—whom Rachel would call a “brave little pioneer” with a “beautiful life”—flourished, finishing a four-year medical degree in just three. She graduated on March 11, 1886, with her husband in the crowd; her thesis, titled “Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos,” was not only the longest of the year but also widely circulated. After Queen Victoria (!) read a copy sent by Dean Bodley, a royal secretary wrote to express thanks and “to assure you that the Queen has read the paper with much interest.”

Sadly, Anandi’s health had been steadily in decline since she had contracted tuberculosis while in Calcutta. After graduation, she was forced to decline a trip around America as well as an internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Instead, she accepted a position at Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur, assuming the roles of physician-in-charge of the female ward and head of a new program to teach girls to be general practitioners. Despite her best efforts, her health took a turn for the worse when she headed back to India in October 1886; she died three months later in her mother’s arms.

Despite her earlier fears of exclusion, upon her death Anandi was far from a pariah. Her obituary in India praised her for proving that “the great qualities—perseverance, unselfishness, undaunted courage and an eager desire to serve one’s country—do exist in the so-called weaker sex.” Anandi’s ashes were sent to Theodicia, who buried them in her own family’s cemetery in Poughkeepsie, which is just about as perfect a tearjerker ending as we could ask for. Get on it, Hollywood.

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