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Women and Medical Profession in Colonial Bengal 1883-1947

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Item Code: HAN961
Author: Susmita Mukherjee
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 9789355723222
Pages: 263
Other Details 9.5x6.5 inch
Weight 506 gm
Book Description
About The Book

The expansionist policy of the colonial power necessitated official involvement with medical education in Bengal from the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, Western medicine permeated various levels of society, thereby making medicine a remunerative profession. A handful of women receiving higher education aspired for a professional career and medicine became their obvious choice, as women patients refused to consult male doctors during pregnancy or childbirth, or for diseases specific to women. In this context, both indigenous and white women doctors working in Bengal emerged as dedicated caregivers for women patients specifically. The Dufferin Fund set up in 1885 further reinforced gender segregation through its objective of treating women patients by women doctors only. As a result, other skilled and complicated branches of medicine became the domain of male doctors. Interestingly, this legacy of separation between the 'masculine' and 'feminine' branches of medicine continues even today. Women and Medical Profession in Colonial Bengal, 1883-1947 studies the origin of women's entry into medicine in colonial Bengal and thereby unfurls the layers within these thought-provoking questions about its legacy, providing some answers and leading to new questions, the effects of which abound and govern our present..

About the Author

Susmita Mukherjee is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of History. Syamaprasad College, Kolkata. Her primary area of research includes gender and medicine, with special emphasis on indigenous women medical practitioners in colonial Bengal. She has also done extensive research on the Bengali revolutionaries operating from Burma between the years 1923-48 and contributed several articles concerning gender and medicine. A project entitled "Tamar Revolt from 1767 to Sardari Movement: Archival, Non-Archival and Oral Sources Based Compilation and Analysis' at Dr Ram Dayal Munda Tribal Research Institute, Ranchi is her current research endeavour, and she is also involved in a joint book project on 'Burma-India Relations in the Colonial Period: Archival and Literary Documents'.


Late Dr Sobha Ghosh, an eminent gynecologist of Kolkata, once in an informal gathering mentioned the unusual /concentration of women doctors in the field of obstetrics, gynecology and paediatrics all connected with women and child care In contrast the presence of women doctors in other branches of medicine is much less. This disparity piqued my interest and I delved into colonial history to explore the origins of this trend. The deep concern of the colonial government, missionaries and society in general about the women and child mortality during childbirth created the need for women doctors. The institutionalization and differentiation in medical education facilitated the entry of women to medical colleges and schools. They became dedicated care givers for the women patients only. In this process I was intrigued by the grit and determination of many women doctors of Calcutta Medical College like Kadambını Ganguly, Bidhumukhi Basu, Jamını Sen, and others, who succeeded in establishing themselves in a predominantly male world. They went abroad alone to upgrade their medical skills. The licentiate doctors of Campbell Medical School were willing to join hospitals or dispensaries in any part of Bengal and serve the rural population, even at the expense of their safety and security. They provided home care to the rural women who would have otherwise been deprived of any medical assistance. Their sincerity and commitment need to be appreciated. This book is an extension of my doctoral thesis for which I pursued extensive research around the origins of women doctors.

In the process of writing the doctoral thesis and revising it for the present book, I have received encouragement and support from several people. At the outset I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Lakshmi Subramanian who had constantly offered critical insight, suggestions and direction for me to complete the study I am indebted to Professor Geraldine Forbes who was not only generous with her time and ideas but also shared valuable documents with me. During my research in Delhi at National Archives and Nehru Memorial, I was fortunate to have the company of Professors R. Mahalakshmi and Rakesh Batabyal who made my stay memorable with their warmth and intellectual inputs. I owe special thanks to my friends Professors Suchandra Ghosh and Ishita Banerjee-Dube who motivated me to publish my doctoral thesis as a book. I am deeply grateful to my dear friend and cultural historian Professor Sarvanı Gooptu for her constant encouragement and motivation. Her intellectual and emotional support and warm friendship have always been my source of strength. I also thank Professor Lipi Ghosh and my colleagues and friends at Indian Association for Astan and Pacific Studies for providing me the platform to present my ideas. I owe special thanks to Jayati Das, Susmita Sinha, and Sushweta Ghosh. I thank my friends Paromita, Paula, Anuradaha, Amrita, Sharmila and Swarnali for their abiding love.

My colleagues and friends at Syamaprasad College have always inspired me in my academic endeavours. I specially thank Shri Tanmoy Biswas, Dr Indranil Ghosh and Dr Nivedita Bhattacharya for their kind support. I am grateful to the teachers of the History Department with whom I have always discussed and shared a lot of my research work. A special word of thanks to Sulagna Som for her kind support. I owe a profound debt to the staff of the Secretariat Library, National Library, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, and Hitesh Ranjan Sanyal Archives at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta for locating my sources. I would specially like to thank Dr Madhurima Sen and Bidisha Chakrabarty of West Bengal State Archives for their relentless academic support.

I thank my parents Tarun Kumar Sengupta and Manjulika Sengupta, my father-in-law and mother-in-law Dhirendralal Mukherji and Pushpa Mukherji, for always believing in me. I wish they were all here today to see their dream come true. I have immensely benefitted from the stimulating discussions with my sisters Dr Nandita Das Gupta and Sudeshna Sen Gupta.


This book is about gender discrimination in medical T practice and policies in the colonial setting. It proposes to depict how gender segregation in Indian society ushered in a male-female divide in medical profession, with gynaecology and obstetrics emerging as the natural choices for the majority of women physicians. Indian women doctors from the very onset were marginalized and contained within the domain of 'care' that worked around notions of inversed female roles within a family setting. It also questions whether even today women doctors have really gained access to the so-called male dominated medical fields like general surgery. neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery, oncology, medicine, nuclear medicme or orthopaedics. In recent times however, we mostly find women doctors in paediatric, ophthalmology, pathology anaesthesiology, psychiatry, dentistry or other less popular specializations. Are we to assume that those areas that required specialization, excellence or finesse were earmarked for male surgeons alone? Were women doctors not smart enough to prove their competence in these branches of medicine? Is it a coincidence that most women doctors till date prefer to opt voluntarily for gynaecology and obstetrics or lesser lucrative fields of medicine or was this a historical legacy thrust upon women for generations?

In the colonial discourse on India 'women's question' figured significantly. Nineteenth century witnessed the consolidation of British power in India and the hastening of Western contact which brought about extensive changes in the social fabric. It produced responses that were wide ranging and divergent. The scathing criticism of James Mill of how the Hindus treated their women in his famous book, History of India' in 1817 was taken seriously by the Western-educated elite and the newly emergent Bengali middle class. Bengal's answer to such insinuations made by the British colonists and their missionary corroborators was reflected in the modernizing agenda of the Bengali intellectuals of the nineteenth century leading to banning of female infanticide, abolition of Sati and legalization of widow remarriage. However, in all these cases, shastras were invoked, and women had no role to play. Traditional law and custom struck a balance between the protection of women and respect for women. Women may have power and authority but no autonomy. Legally, women were denied the same rights as men in matters of inheritance, property ownership and guardianship of children. Vina Mazumdar in her paper titled 'Emergence of Women's Question in India and Role of Women's Studies' suggests that the women's question in the nineteenth century emerged out of a sense of an identity crisis of the new educated middle classes, products of the colonial system of education. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay argues that elite Bengali male reformers were perhaps not unsympathetic or insensitive to the women, but it never occurred to them that women were conscious equals who would like to participate in their own emancipation schemes.

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