'Why do I go to America?': Anandi Joshi came to Philadelphia to become first Indian woman doctor


A gravestone marks a burial site in a section of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in upstate New York with the following inscription: First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to Obtain an Education.

There's a crater on Venus named in her honor. Google commemorated her with a doodle in 2018. She has also been the subject of several books, plays and movies about her life.

So, who is Anandi Joshi, and why should we know more about her?

The answer to that starts in April 1883 when this young woman left her native India to come to America to do something unheard of at the time: to enroll in college to study medicine.


It involved a journey that within four years took her to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, back to India and then to her final resting place in New York.

But in that short time, she achieved fame and immortality as the first Indian woman to study medicine and earn a medical degree from an American college. She became the first female doctor in India based on her qualifications, but her career was short-lived when she died in February 1887 at 21.

Joshi's humble beginnings and challenges provide insight into what made her a medical pioneer and role model.

Nandini Patwardhan, who wrote the Joshi biography, “Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions,” said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network that she thinks Joshi should be more well-known.

"Anandi was, in a sense, a prisoner of her circumstances. But she had the courage to go beyond that, to challenge that,” Patwardhan said. “And if she could do it, unsupported by her country, unsupported, of course, by her society.

“And living here in the United States where it was a predominately white, predominately Christian society, and people are inclined to be skeptical and doubtful about her ability to attain a medical education, professional degree. But she plowed through, and she did it.”

Anandi Joshi graduated from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1886, the first Indian woman to attend and graduate with a medical degree from an American college.
Anandi Joshi graduated from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1886, the first Indian woman to attend and graduate with a medical degree from an American college.

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'I go to America'

"Why do I go to America?"

That was the question 17-year-old Anandi Gopalrao Joshi answered while addressing a packed crowd at Serampore College in the Indian city of Serampore in February 1883.

Joshi faced pressure and criticism over her decision to pursue a medical degree from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, a nearly 8,000-mile trip to an unfamiliar place on the other side of the world.

She would respond simply, "I go to America because I wish to study medicine."

Joshi (also spelled Joshee) was born in the city of Kalyan in the Bombay Province of India, then part of the British Empire, on March 31, 1865. Born into a Brahmin family with a birth name of Yamuna, she grew up very quickly. At age 9 her family married her off to a widower almost 20 years older than her, in keeping with the traditions of the time.

Her new husband, Gopalrao Joshi, would become one of the influences on her eventual goal to study medicine.

Patwardhan wrote in her book that when Joshi was to marry her in 1874, he did so with the condition that he "intended to educate Yamuna, and he would brook no interference or objections."

Joshi educated his young bride through reward and brutal punishment even when there were objections from his community to his unorthodox mission.

Anandi Joshi would also be influenced to pursue medicine by a traumatic, life-changing experience: the death of her first child. She was still a child, 12 years old, when her newborn boy died 10 days after birth.

Indian sociologist Meera Kosambi wrote in her biography of Joshi, "Fragmented Feminism: The Life and Letters of Anandibai Joshee," that "her conviction that proper medical care would have saved the infant may have been the seed which later germinated into her decision to study medicine."

Also, during this time, her husband made the acquaintance of Christian missionaries in Kohlapur to get their help in an ambitious plan to travel with his wife to the United States so she could continue her education.

That led Joshi to send a letter in September 1878 to the Rev. R.G. Wilder, a Princeton-based missionary, requesting his assistance to find employment in the U.S. to fund his wife's education. That request was denied, but Wilder's correspondence with Joshi was published in the newsletter The Missionary Review. Roselle resident Theodocia Carpenter saw it while waiting in her dentist's office in Elizabeth. It touched a chord with Carpenter, who began a friendship with Anandi Joshi that would last until her death.

The Joshis would also make the acquaintance of the Thoburns, an American couple doing missionary work in Calcutta. Anna Thoburn, a recent graduate of the Woman's College of Pennsylvania, advocated for her new friend in an 1882 letter to her alma mater. In the letter to the college's dean, Rachel Bodley, she said of Joshi, "She is a bright little woman — speaks English fairly well-and writes it better than I do. . . She will no doubt appear dull at first as she will find it difficult to understand but I think she will get on well after a time."

However, word would soon get in the community that the Joshis were looking at this new opportunity in America and it was not greeted with enthusiasm. That led to the speech at Serampore College.

She would tell the audience that she was going to study abroad to receive the education that would enable her to become a trained practitioner who would come back home to work as she noted that "there is a growing need for Hindu lady doctors in India, and I volunteer to qualify myself for one."

Two months later, after her 18th birthday, Joshi set sail for her new home without her husband to become the first Indian woman to study western medicine at an American school. She is believed to be the first woman from India to arrive in the United States.

Pioneer in a new land

When Joshi arrived in the U.S. in June 1883, she had several things that helped adjust to a new country. Among those factors were financial stability and people ready to greet her.

The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania awarded Joshi a $600 scholarship to cover the cost of three years of study. And new friends like Theodocia Carpenter, who opened her Roselle, New Jersey summer home to Joshi, were there for her arrival. Joshi wrote to her husband, which is quoted in Kosambi's book: "Lady friends came, embraced, and kissed me, and gave me flowers. Since I left you, I have had nothing but kindness."

Joshi made her way to Philadelphia in late September, where she settled in the home of the college's dean. Soon, she immersed herself in a rigorous collegiate life all while trying to balance being a devout Hindu and devoted wife to a husband thousands of miles away. He traveled to see her in 1885 and they would exchange letters while they were apart.

In one of her letters to her husband, sent in January 1884, she expressed how she was taken aback by some Americans she met and their ignorance of other cultures:

"I feel really surprised at the ignorance of these [American] people. They ask such childish and foolish questions regarding child marriage, that it really annoys me."

She was also surrounded by other female students who were as brilliant and educated as her. Some of them came from overseas and would become the first from their country to earn medical degrees like Kei Okami, the first Japanese woman to earn a degree in Western medicine from a Western university; and Sabat Islambouli, one of the first Kurdish female physicians from Syria.

Joshi's diligence as a student culminated in her thesis, "Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos," which Kosambi described as Joshi's attempt to "reinstate ancient Indian medical lore as of equal or greater worth than contemporary Western medicine, and to reconstruct a family and community structure which was far superior to the one then in existence in India (and viewed as corrupted)."

Nearly three years after her arrival at the college, now part of Drexel University, she graduated in a class of 33 students with a medical degree, the first Indian woman to do so in the U.S.

She returned home to India in late 1886 with the goal of being a "Hindu lady doctor" as a position awaited her in the city of Kolhapur where she would be in charge of the Edward Albert Hospital and teach medicine to an all-female class.

But her plans would not come to fruition due to her declining health. In one of her last letters before returning to India, written in fall 1886 to feminist writer Caroline Healey Dall, she described how her "headache, which is reflex, is perfectly intolerable. It is aggravated by every attempt to think."

She died in the city of Pune in February 1887 from tuberculosis, four weeks before her 22nd birthday.

But in death, she returned to America one last time as her ashes are interred at the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery in upstate New York in the family plot of her American sponsor and friend, New Jersey resident Theodicia Carpenter.

Anandi Joshi, the first Indian woman to receive a medical degree for an American college is seen in this photo taken at a reception at the Woman's College of Pennsylvania on Oct. 10, 1885, Also in the photo are her classmates Kei Okami from Japan and Sabat Islambouli from Syria, who were the first women from their countries to earn medical degrees from a Western college.

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Anandi's influence lives on

More than a century after her death, Joshi continues to fascinate people who come across her.

Jaipreet Virdi was doing research in 2014 for a book on the history of hearing aids when while looking for 19th century photographs of people using ear trumpets, a photo in the Legacy Center Archives of the Drexel University College of Medicine caught her eye.

It was taken at a reception held at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in October 1885. It featured Joshi and her classmates Kei Okami and Sabat Islambouli, all attired in traditional dress.

"I had hardly come across any sources from this period of non-white women practicing medicine, so naturally I was fascinated by the photo, and being South Asian myself, especially drawn to Joshi," recalled Virdi, a professor at the University of Delaware, who teaches courses on disability histories, the history of medicine, and health activism.

Virdi said learning more about Joshi has such a hold on her that it led to writing a blog post about Joshi in 2014, which went viral. She also attempted to write a book on Joshi, which has since been postponed.

"It was remarkable. This was a young woman who we expect to be submissive and subjugated based on her background and circumstances — she was married at 9 years old to a 29-year-old man who bullied and abused her while educating her — but despite numerous challenges, managed to sail to the United States and enroll into the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and receive her M.D. at age 21," Virdi said.

Virdi pointed out that while Joshi's life has been documented in several books as well as a play and a film in 2019, her story is more well-known in her native India than outside the country and should be more recognized.

"She’s not just an inspiration of a female overcoming her obstacles to achieve her destiny: she is a model of self-determination and opportunity, someone who made the best of the circumstances she found herself in, even when they weren’t always her choice," Virdi said.

Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @ricardokaul

This article originally appeared on Woman buried in Poughkeepsie was first from India with U.S. medical degree