A Symbol of Women’s Liberation
A Symbol of Women’s Liberation
Kadambini Ganguly was the first female practitioner of Western medicine in India, the first female to gain admission in Calcutta Medical College, and she bagged the top spot as the first female to achieve various other monumental goals. Breaking barriers at a time when it was unheard of for women to even leave their households, Kadambini was one of the most liberated Indian women to have ever lived.
Kadambini Ganguly. Image Source: Public Domain

Born on 18th July 1861

It was the year 1861. Industries had just begun to get set up, creating an illusion of modernity. Yet workers were overworked by their employers, Indians tied by the hands of their colonizers and women were deeply oppressed by the norms of age-old patriarchy enforced by men, which made them bear the weight of every kind of subjugation. In this grim atmosphere, a baby girl was born to a family in Bhagalpur, Bihar, completely unaware that her heart and soul belonged to a time that was way ahead in the future. Little did she know that the world wouldn’t be as welcoming as she hoped to a girl like her, and with a grave vengeance, find ways to cast her out.

Unlike the fate of other girls in India during that era, Kadambini’s father was a Brahmo reformer who fought for women’s emancipation and established the women's organisation- Bhagalpur Mahila Samiti in 1863. Her sheer will in addition to the blood running in her veins drove her to break free from the patriarchal system and step out from the shadows of conservative men.

Unsympathetic to the whispers from upper-class Bengalis who judged her every move, Kadambini enrolled herself into school irrespective of society’s views on women’s education at that time. To add more salt to the wound, she became the first female to pass the University of Calcutta entrance examination, despite the varsity not admitting female students back then.

However, merely receiving an education was not all that Kadambini had planned for herself. She had no intention of pleasing her neighbours or anyone else who thought differently. She wanted to pursue a career in medicine, a field where women were barely respected. Every time she stood in front of the building of Calcutta Medical College (CMC), she longed to walk its corridors and hold a degree that had its name written on it.

In 1883, Kadambini got married to a widower named Dwarkanath Ganguly, which raised the eyebrows of anyone who heard the news. Although they both received disapproval over their union, they led a healthy married life, with Dwarkanath supporting every move of his wife.

Vowing to ensure Kadambini gets everything she deserves, he stood alongside her in the battle to get admitted to CMC, which she finally achieved in 1884, becoming the first woman to ever do so.

Yet life didn’t prove to be easy, for there were other obstacles which she hadn’t predicted. Filled with jealousy and the need to dominate women, one of her disgraceful professors deliberately failed her in 1888, robbing her from ultimately receiving the MB degree she so desperately wanted. Despite starting her private practice, she was unsuccessful as the British doctors were condescending over her not having an MB degree, on top of an already prevalent gender bias. She was called something akin to a 'whore' in a Bengali periodical as well, for leaving her household of 8 children to work in a profession where she didn’t belong.

After being cornered from all sides, Kadambini decided to take a leap and go abroad to further her studies. She was the only female out of 14 successful candidates to receive the Triple Diplomas of the Scottish College after training in Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and also became the first woman from South Asia to achieve this rare phenomenon.

Actress Solanki Roy playing Kadambini in the televised series 'Prothoma Kadambini’; Image Source: India Times

Kadambini had earlier already garnered the attention of legendary women like Florence Nightingale and Anne Besant, which after her return to India was joined by plenty of others. She was even hired to treat Nepal’s queen’s mother and many other high-profile cases. Kadambini was born to be the first woman to liberate herself from various oppressions.

In the session of INC in 1890 in Calcutta, Kadambini gave a lecture in English - becoming the first woman to do so at the INC.

She went on to actively support women’s emancipation along with her husband, calling out institutions that discriminated against females, like CMC who felt so threatened by her voice that they ultimately opened their college for all women in 1915.

According to American historian David Kopf, Kadambini was “the most accomplished and liberated Brahmo woman of her time."

Despite being occupied in various other fields, she never gave up her medical career, pursuing it right till her last breath quite literally as she died of Tuberculosis in 1923 just after operating on a patient. Yet Kadambini lives forever in the hearts of many as a symbol of liberation, a pioneering woman and a skilled doctor who broke barriers.

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