Discover Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine, "an illuminating and inspiring history of six exceptional Indian women determined to endure and defy societal opposition for the sake of the greater good."
‘It is not easy to be a pioneer—but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.’
—Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor to qualify in the US
To understand Indian women doctors, one must first understand how women doctors in other countries brought down the walls that excluded them.
Many of these stories come to us as myths and legends, and it is hard to sift fact from fiction. Historians have engaged in a fair bit of detective work to figure out which women were real, and which were merely the product of wishful thinking by those who craved to see women in medicine. All, however, are proof that women were desper- ate for an entry into medicine, often resorting to incredible strategies to worm their way in. They dressed as men, moved to countries other than their own, studied in foreign languages and spent years navigat- ing and battling the system.
It was not only men who stood in their way. Many prominent women also did not believe that women could be capable doctors. Florence Nightingale, for instance, in a letter to the philosopher John Stuart Mill, wrote that women doctors ‘have tried to be men, and only succeeded in being “third rate men”.’ She was brutally critical about what she considered the poor quality of the first women doctors, and described Elizabeth Blackwell, thus: ‘as inferior as a 3rd rate apothecary of thirty years ago’. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author and anti-slavery activist, told Blackwell people would never consult a woman doctor.
Nevertheless, a gradual, tentative sisterhood emerged. Many of the early women doctors in the US and the UK set up institutions such as the London School of Medicine that educated women from across the world. Others funded and helped women across the world travel to the West for their degrees. Most early women doctors were thus connected across continents, with doctor helping doctor.
Similarly, the Edinburgh Seven, a brave group of women who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but were denied their degrees, inspired Kadambini Ganguly so much that she travelled all the way to Edinburgh to get her degree. British women doctors flocked in droves to India, sponsored by the Dufferin Fund, which was set up to bring medical care to Indian women. It is another matter that it would later be savagely criticised for its colonialist methods and its preference for European doctors over Indian doctors.
Merit-Ptah: The First Woman Doctor Who Wasn’t?
Beginning in the 1930s, stories began to be circulated about the ‘first’ woman doctor—an Egyptian woman called Merit-Ptah, who lived around 2700 BC. She was widely described in popular history books as the world’s first woman physician, and as a role model for women in science. The usual tribute—a crater on the moon—was dedicated to her. Then, in 2019, a study appeared which argued that Merit-Ptah likely never existed and had been created because of an error by Dr Kate Campbell Mead-Hurd, a respected Canadian doctor.
Dr Mead-Hurd was a fascinating figure in her own right. Born in Quebec in 1867, she was one of the early women students at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, a pioneering institute. She was passionate about unearthing the forgotten history of women doctors, who she felt had been erased. After years of successful practice, she devoted the last years of her life to travelling the world and writing a mammoth series of books on women doctors. Sadly, she died soon after the publication of the first book, and her magnum opus remained incomplete.
Dr Mead-Hurd identified Merit-Ptah in her book as the first woman doctor. Mead-Hurd’s source for her story was a picture and a tablet in the tomb of a high priest buried in the Valley of Kings, which referred to his mother as ‘Merit-Ptah, the chief physician’. The book described how she lived during the 5th dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom—circa 2730 BC.
In November 2019, Jakub Kwiecinski, a medical historian at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, claimed that there was no proof that Merit-Ptah really existed. He said that Mead-Hurd had confused her with another ancient Egyptian woman healer, Peseshet. She was also discovered through the excavation of her son’s tomb. A false door in the tomb of Akhethetep, who lived circa 2400 BC, was covered with carvings depicting his mother as the ‘overseer of healer women’. It is unclear if Peseshet was actually a physician or a midwife.
The case of Merit-Ptah indicates how eager women doctors were to find icons and role models to lead the way. As Kwiecinski pointed out, ‘Even though Merit-Ptah is not an authentic ancient Egyptian woman healer, she is a very real symbol of the 20th century feminist struggle to write women back into the history books, and to open medicine and STEM to women.’