Expand your mind
October 10, 2021
Meet the female doctors behind the photograph that intrigued millions around the world

These women: Dr Anandabai Joshee, Dr Kei Okami, and Dr Tabat Islambouly from India, Japan, and Syria were students at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and they were some of the first female physicians in their respective countries. 

This photograph was taken on October 10th, 1885.

137 years later, we wanted to find out more about these pioneering doctors and the photograph that has intrigued millions around the world as it continues to circulate the internet.

Dr Anandabai Joshee or Dr Anandi Gopal Joshi

Dr Anandabai Gopal Joshee (31 March 1865 – 26 February 1887) was one of the first Indian female doctors of western medicine, and one of the first to graduate from an American University.

Dr Anandabai Joshee or Dr Anandi Gopal Joshi

As was common at that time, her mother married her, at the age of nine, to Gopalrao Joshee, he was a widower and twenty years her senior.

Gopalrao Joshee was progressive for his time and was very supportive of his wife's dream to study medicine. He even wrote a letter to Royal Wilder, a renowned American missionary, stating his wife's interest in studying medicine in the United States and inquiring about a suitable post in the US for himself.

In the 1800s, it was not the norm for husbands to focus on their wives' education, but Gopalrao defied this and was passionate about Anandibai's education.

At the age of 10, Anandibai lost her child due to the lack of medical care in India, and it was this that inspired her to pursue a career in medicine. Anandibai believed that one of the reasons so many women and children lost their lives during childbirth was because societal norms caused them to decline the care of male gynaecologists.

This devastating experience prompted Dr Anandibai's famous address to the community at Serampore College Hall. She urged that there was a need for female doctors in India, as female doctors could best serve other females, and she told them that she wanted to travel to America and get a medical degree.  After her speech financial aid started coming in from all over India.

Anandibai wrote to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which was the second women's medical program in the world.

The dean of the college enrolled her and Anandibai began her medical training at age 19 in America, and she graduated with an MD in March 1886.

In late 1886, Anandibai returned to India, where she received a grand welcome. She was appointed as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital. She died of tuberculosis the next year on 26th February 1887, she was greatly mourned.

Dr Kei Okami 

Dr Kei Okami (11 September 1859 – 2 September 1941) was a Japanese physician specialising in gynaecology and tuberculosis. Like Anandibai, she attended the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in America.

After four years of study, she graduated in 1889, becoming one of the first Japanese woman to obtain a degree in western medicine from an American university.

After returning to Japan, Dr Kei Okami initially worked at the Jikei Hospital, but she resigned because the Emperor refused her care for the sole reason that she was female. After this, she opened her own clinic, operating out of her home in Akasaka Tameike, Minato. Making her not only one of the first Japanese women to become a doctor, but also one of the first to start her own practice.

Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania operating amphitheater, 1915 (Photo: Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Ephemeral Elegance on Twitter: "6/8 Dr. Keiko Okami moved to the U.S. at  the age of 25 with her husband, an art teacher. She was able to attend the  Women's College due
Keiko Okami in the garden of her home in Tokyo in 1939 (Photo: Legacy Center Archives, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Dr Tabat M Islambouly

Dr Tabat M Islambouly (AKA Sabat M. Islambouli, Sabat Islambooly, Tabat Istanbuli, Thabat Islambooly) (1867 – 1941) was one of the first Kurdish female physicians from Syria. She was born to a Kurdish-Jewish family.

Like Anandibai and Kei, Tabat studied at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in the United States of Amercia. She graduated with her medical degree in 1890.

Of the three pioneering female physicians Tabat's life is the most shrouded by mystery, she is believed to have gone back to Damascus after she graduated, and then to Cairo in 1919, according to the college's alumnae list.

After that, the college lost touch with her. Little is known of what happened to her once she left the United States, but it is noted that she died in 1941.

These three doctors challenged the gender norms of their time, revolutionising the healthcare profession in each of their respective countries. It is no wonder that this ancient photograph is still intriguing audiences over hundred years on.

Article by
Medworld Journalist

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