Meet the first Indian women to ever earn medical degrees in the United States.
Anandibai Joshee (left) and Gurubai Karmarkar earned medical degrees from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. (Photographs courtesy Wikipedia)
Today, an ever-increasing number of Indian women study in the United States to become doctors, nurses, professors, scientists, researchers and beyond. But the opportunity to receive such world-class medical education didn’t always exist. Pioneering doctors like Anandibai Joshee and Gurubai Karmarkar paved the way more than a century ago, against all odds, for the Indian women of today to turn their dreams of international medical education into reality.
Joshee was born in 1865 near Mumbai. At the age of 18 , she announced her intention to study medicine in the United States. She believed there was a growing need for women doctors in India and wanted to qualify as one.
Joshee’s goal was difficult to achieve and she faced numerous challenges along the way. As was common at the time, Joshee had been married young, at the age of 9. Her husband though supported her dreams of education. An early request for funding to study in the United States was rejected by the Presbyterian Church because Joshee would not convert to Christianity. And Joshee’s own community initially fought her going, for fear that she would not maintain their customs while studying and living in the United States.
Despite such doubts, Joshee managed to win support from friends and acquaintances, who helped fund her trip through donations. After selling jewelry she had received as a gift from her father, she was able to pay for her journey, and in 1883, she sailed from Kolkata to New York. She enrolled in Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1886, becoming the first Indian woman to earn an American medical degree.
Tragically, Joshee contracted tuberculosis and died in her early 20s, before she could fully apply her skills to help Indian women, as she had dreamed. But others soon followed in her footsteps.
Just six years after Joshee graduated, a second Indian woman, Gurubai Karmarkar, also earned a medical degree from the same Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Karmarkar was a Christian missionary and she studied medicine while her husband learned theology at a nearby seminary. Karmarkar returned to India in 1893 and spent over 30 years working for the American Marathi Mission in Mumbai. Throughout her career, her work included treating the most vulnerable of patients, including people suffering from leprosy and children who were starving due to famine.
Though Joshee’s and Karmarkar’s paths diverged in many ways, they shared vital traits: the ambition to break new ground, a keen curiosity to learn more, and a deep commitment to helping fellow Indian women and others in need. Their examples continue to inspire today, and top medical schools across the United States proudly count Indian women amongst their graduating classes. All such doctors owe a debt of gratitude to pioneers like Joshee and Karmarkar, who helped pave the way.
Michael Gallant is a New York City-based writer, musician and entrepreneur.