An illustrative exhibit on the first practicing lady doctor of India
Dr. Rakhmabai Bhikaji was a pioneer in the field of medicine and women’s rights in the 19th century. Her efforts to be granted the right to choose was instrumental in raising the age of consent for women in 1891. She went on to study in the London school of Medicine for Women in 1889. When she came back to India to work in a hospital in 1894, she became India’s first practicing lady doctor.
Rakhmabai Bhikaji was born to Jayantibai and Janardhan on November 22, 1864. When her father passed away, her mother married Sakharam Arjun, a professor at the Grand Medical College in Bombay. Owing to social norms that existed at that time, Rakhmabai got married at 11-years of age to the 19-year old Dadaji Bhikaji. As was convention at the time, she stayed at her parents house, this was the time she spent in educating herself under the guidance of her stepfather.
When Rakhmabai was still in school, her husband, Dadaji, insisted that Rakhmabai come and live with him in his house. Rakhmabai, not one to blindly follow convention, refused.
Dadaji soon filed a petition in the court of law. Early in 1884, one of India’s most influential and publicized trials began. After Rakhmabai refused to stay with her husband, the court gave her two options – to either comply or face imprisonment. Rakhmabai told the court that she would rather go to jail than live with Dadaji. The case sparked debates on the age of consent for marriage when Rakhmbai refused to obey.
Behramji Malabari and Pandita Ramabai came to her defense and formed the Rakhmabai Defense Committee. The case spanned 4 years until Dadaji was “compensated” in 1888, outside of court.
The case was instrumental in the drafting of the Age of Consent Act in 1891.
In the months leading up to the trial, Rakhmabai began writing letters to the Times of India under the pseudonym, ‘A Hindu Lady’. The first letter was published on 26 June, 1884 and it questioned the status of Hindu Women in society.
“This wicked practice of child marriage has destroyed the happiness of my life. It comes between me and the things which I prize above all others – study and mental cultivation. Without the least fault of mine I am doomed to seclusion; every aspiration of mine to rise above my ignorant sisters is looked down upon with suspicion and is interpreted in the most uncharitable manner.”
Rakhmabai’s letters were viral and much followed both in India and abroad. Subsequently, The Times in London would often carry editorials following up on her case. In 1887, they published a letter from her shared by the Bishop of Carlisle that was sent to his family.
Rakhmabai was finally free to pursue her education after her court cases had concluded. Under the guidance and support of Edith Pechey Phipson, the British director of the Cama Hospital in Bombay, Rakhmabai went to England to study in the London School of Medicine for Women in 1889. During the course of her education, she travelled to Glasgow, Brussels, and Edinburgh and obtained qualifications before graduating in 1894.
When she came back to India to work in a hospital in 1894, she became India’s first practicing lady doctor.
After her graduation, she returned to India in 1894. She first practiced medicine in Bombay marking her historical milestone of becoming India’s first practicing lady doctor. She then went to Surat and between 1918 and 1930, she worked as the Chief Medical Officer at Rajkot’s Zenana state hospital. This marked the beginning of an illustrious career in medicine that also saw her write on child marriage and women’s rights.
Dr. Rakhmabai’s story was a series of courageous actions that set history in motion. She followed each dream with decisive action. Rising above social convention, she stood up for her rights and created a legacy. Her story may not have reached too many lives, but it remains for people to be inspired by.