Editor’s note: #DesiSTEMinist is a campaign to celebrate women in the field of STEM and highlight their contributions.
At a time when women were discouraged from pursuing basic education and often rejected from entering into schools and colleges, Dr. Rupa Bai Furdoonji was the first female in many significant fields of science and biology in India and the world at large. She was the first female anesthetist of the world and her expertise in the said field has been eulogised in many books and reports including the book A Report on Hyderabad Chloroform Commissions.
Furdoonji fought against many barriers that came her way during those days. Famous medical schools, with very few exceptions, refused admission to female candidates. Despite such odds, Dr. Rupa Bai Furdoonji educated herself in the best medical colleges in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
Early Life And Education
Furdoonji was one of the few women to enrol in medical courses at Hyderabad Medical College in the year 1885. Furdoonji finished her education in the year 1889 and obtained a degree called ‘hakeem’ which was equivalent to that of a medical doctor. Those were the days of British rule in India and the chief surgeon of British residency and the Principal of Hyderabad Medical School, Edward Lawrie, guided Furdoonji to become a specialist in anesthesia. The duration of the course was four years and the medium of instruction was English, though an Urdu translator was also made available. Lawrie was in favour of educating women and encouraged many women including Furdoonji to pursue their education in medical schools in Hyderabad as well as in England.
Furdoonji was one of the five female scholars who was selected to join the medical course in Hyderabad.
During those times, specialty in a specific field like anesthesiology was unheard of. Furdoonji having administered anesthesia in many hospitals including the British residency hospital in the years 1889-1917, set herself apart from her female as well as male counterparts. Her expertise which was highly appreciated and valued, set her on her course to Edinburgh United Kingdom (UK) in 1909 to gain further expertise in anesthetics. Due to the unavailability of specific courses in anesthesiology, Furdoonji obtained a diploma in Physics and Chemistry from the University of Edinburgh which was very useful for doctors who handled anesthetics. Later on, Furdoonji pursued a medical degree from one of the most renowned medical institutes in the world, Johns Hopkins University. Furdoonji’s degrees and certificates are meticulously preserved at the National Institute of Indian Medical Heritage.
Career And Appreciation
Whatever is known to us about Furdoonji’s career, we owe it to Mr. Harmusji Kause, a Parsee gentleman from Hyderabad who saved Furdoonji’s original certificates and a few letters pertaining to her career. One of the certificates, duly signed by Lawrie, endorsed her participation in the Chloroform Commissions and marks her accomplishments in medicine. Another certifies her participation in Pathology course in Hyderabad and the last one from the University of Edinburgh, in 1910. In fact, it is Kaunse himself who discovered that Furdoonji may be the first lady anesthetist of the world after going through the reports of Second International Conference of History of Anesthesia in London, 1987.
Her widespread knowledge about anesthesia made her contributions invaluable at the First as well as Second Hyderabad Chloroform Commissions held in the years 1888 and 1891.
Being the first anesthetist, Furdoonji took anesthesiology as her full time career. After studying in UK for two years, she returned to Hyderabad and served in British residency – Sultan Bazaar Hospital as a full-time anesthetist. At this time, there were very few lady doctors, let alone lady anesthetists in India and all around the world. The responsibility to administer anesthesia was left in the hands of general surgeons who would later handover the patients in the care of nurses.
Furdoonji was one of the five female scholars who was selected to join medical course in Hyderabad. Her widespread knowledge about anesthesia made her contributions invaluable at the First as well as Second Hyderabad Chloroform Commissions held in the years 1888 and 1891. The famous historian, Dr. Annie Besant, highly impressed by her education and expertise had written a letter of recommendation for Furdoonji in the year 1909 to Mrs. Drummond requesting her assistance to Furdoonji in Edinburgh. When the time came for Furdoonji to return back to India, Mrs. Drummond wrote to her associates in Hyderabad insisting that she should be relieved of her duties there as her services were irreplaceable in Edinburgh.
Furdoonji retired from Nizam’s medical service in the year 1920 as the superintendent of Chaderghat Hospital, Hyderabad in the year 1920. Furdoonji’s career or life after her retirement has largely remained untraceable, says Kause. Almost nothing is known to us about Furdoonji’s date of birth, personal life or death. However, throughout her life, Furdoonji remained unmarried. What remains undebatable are her contributions in the field of science and specifically towards anesthesiology.
In the Indian imagination, an ‘Aunty’ is a middle-aged, usually fat woman who is married and has children. Young women, especially unmarried ones, either do not want to associate with the term or are expected to steer clear of it.