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3-min read

Not Just a Doctor: India's First Woman Surgeon Muthulakshmi Reddi Was a Rebel at Heart

Reddi was the first woman legislator of British India. She worked for the abolition of Devadasi, and raising age of consent for marriage of girls from 16 to 21.


Updated:July 30, 2019, 2:30 PM IST
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Not Just a Doctor: India's First Woman Surgeon Muthulakshmi Reddi Was a Rebel at Heart
Muthulaskshmi Reddy is today's Google Doodle | (Google doodle)

India has had no dearth of rebellious women who broke the glass ceiling forged and new paths for generations of women to tread. One such rebel is Muthulakshmi Reddi, one of India's first women doctors.

Tamil Nadu government recently marked July 30, Reddi's birth anniversary, as 'Hospital Day' to be held every year starting 2019 to commemorate the doctor's contributions to the field of science. She is well known for establishing the Adayar Cancer Institute in 1954, following the loss of her sister to the illness which became a personal grievance as well as professional motivation for the medical practitioner. She was the first woman to work as a surgeon in a government hospital and the first female legislator in the history of British India.

But this was not Reddi's only identity. Today's Google Doodle pays tribute to Reddi on her birth anniversary and her doodle depicts her with books in hand, leading the way forward to a future as yet undiscovered. And it is not at all a stretch for apart from being one of India's first female doctors, Reddi was an educator, lawmaker, surgeon, and reformer.

But before all of that, she was a rebel.

Born to a Devdasi mother in 1886 in the princely state of Pudukkottai, Reddi from a young age was intimate with Devadasi culture and norms. However, as a teenager, she defied her parents' decision to get her married, choosing education instead. Her father, who had been disowned by his family for marrying a Devadasi, was the former principal of Maharajah College.

He encouraged her to continue her education. In fact, she was the first woman ever to get admission in Maharajah College, till then an all boys institution, much like all prestigious institutes of education, science, commerce and industry were back then. The Maharajah at the time himself facilitated the admission, despite opposition from society.

But the rebel in her was not yet done. After Maharajah, she went on to study in Madras Medical College, becoming once again the first woman to do so.

In fact, Reddi was at the forefront of various social reforms. She protested against the practice of upper-caste women using Dalit wet-nurses to feed infants, calling it a casteist practice. She also worked hard against the banning of Devdasi performances in private and public functions and the dedication of girl children under age 16.

After education and medicine, Reddi turned to administration and became the first woman to become the Deputy President the Madras Presidency Council. The 1947 Madras Devdasi (Prevention of Dedication) Bill owed much to her work as part of the Council, though she resigned from it in protest after the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi following the Dandi March in 1930.

It is thanks to the efforts of Reddi that the age of legal consent for marrying women is 21 and and not 16. She also started a home for Devadasis - what could today be dubbed as probably one of the the country's first shelter homes for victims of sexual assault - in her own home in Adyar.

In 1947, when India achieved independence and the first free tricolour was unfurled, Reddy's name was on it along with many others whose contributions were responsible for shaping and winning the independence.

Women like Reddi paved the way for future feminist movements and discourse on gender equality and equity. Reddi was an intellectual as well as an activist and an active participant in the country's due processes. She was not afraid to get her hands messy in her pursuit for justice and equality.

On her 133rd birthday, we salute her and the many other women who shone the light of fairness and education across the world and dedicated their lives to the betterment of those in need.

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