Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was born on the 30th of July 1886, in the princely state of Pudukkottai, now a town in Tamil Nadu. She was an eminent medical practitioner, social reformer and legislator. She is also the founder of the Adyar Cancer Institute.
Early life and education
Muthulakshmi Reddy was the daughter of Devdasi Chandrammal and Narayanaswamy. Her father was ostracized from his family because of his marriage to a Devdasi. She developed a close relationship with the maternal side of her family. This closeness made her very perceptive of the Devdasi community and their issues.
She fought against her mother’s decision to marry her off at puberty and went on to become the first woman from Pudukkottai to be admitted to the Maharaja’s High School—she was given admission by the Maharaja himself, despite severe resistance from the principle. The Maharaja’s High School was a school solely for boys and many parents threatened to remove their children from the school, should she enrol there.
After she completed her under-graduation from her hometown, she was successfully admitted to the Madras Medical College—she was the first female student at the college’s Department of Surgery. It was during these years that she formed a close friendship with Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant, both of whom influenced her philosophy and future work. She went on to pursue a higher education in England.
Career and social reform
As a doctor, she fought against the system of wet nursing, in which upper-class and dominant caste women would have their babies breastfed by Dalit women. In 1893, an appeal was put forth by the Madras Hindu Reform Association to put an end to the performance of Devdasis at public and private functions.
In 1913, a bill was proposed to prevent the dedication of girls under 16 years of age; however, the bill did not gain any traction. A resolution was made in the Council of State to prohibit the dedication of girls in 1927 by V.R. Puntulu. Dr. Reddy gave up her practice of medicine after being nominated to the Madras Presidency Council, in the same year that the resolution was made. She was also chosen as the first woman Deputy President of the Council.
In support of the resolution, she met with and interviewed several hundred Devdasis across the Madras Presidency. The resolution became dormant after Dr. Reddy resigned from the Council in 1930, in protest against the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi after the Salt March. The Madras Devdasi (Prevention of Dedication) Bill was eventually passed by the Madras Legislative Assembly in December 1947.
In the midst of the Devdasi debate, Dr. Reddy was approached by 2 girls running away from being dedicated as Devdasis. She housed them while simultaneously attempting to put them into hostels and schools, however, no one would take them. These girls led her to establish the Avvai Home hostel and school in Chennai.
Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was also responsible for several other social reforms. She passed a resolution to set up separate hospitals for women and children and the government also accepted her proposal to open up a children’s section in maternity hospitals. She initiated measures for the betterment of medical facilities for slum dwellers and was actively involved in the construction of women’s toilets.
She passed a bill for the suppression of brothels and trafficking of women and children. Her efforts led to the establishment of a home for those rescued from brothels. She set up a scholarship for non-dominant caste girls and opened hostels for Muslim girls. Dr. Reddy also recommended to the government to raise the age of marriage to 21 for boys and 16 for girls.
As part of her work with the Hartog Education Committee, she travelled extensively across the country to study the progress of women’s education. She was the only woman member of the committee. Dr. Reddy also started the Cancer Relief Fund, which has now developed into an all-India institution combining research and therapy.
She declared her intent to start a hospital for cancer patients in 1935. The foundation stone for the Adyar Cancer Institute was laid in 1952 and the hospital started functioning on the 18th of June, 1954. The Adyar Cancer Institute is currently a world-renowned institution and offers treatment to approximately 80,000 cancer patients a year.
Dr. Reddy has several firsts under her belt, other than the ones already mentioned—she was the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, the first woman legislator in British India, the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board and the first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation Avvai Home.
She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1956 by the Government of India in recognition of her service. It cannot be denied that her work changed many lives and paved the way for the appointment of Indian women in positions of authority.