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VOL. XXIII NO. 19, JANUARY 16-31, 2014
The pioneering woman doctor
'Pages from History' (by Dr. A. Raman) Charles Sturt University Orange, New South Wales Australia

Mary Scharlieb (1908) by Hugh Goldwin Reviere.

What stands today as Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women in Triplicane and prides itself as a hospital with specialist services in uro-gynaecological problems was the brainchild of Mary Anne Scharlieb, who came to Madras as the wife of William Mason Scharlieb in 1866.

Born Mary Anne Dacomb Bird, she grew up with her grandparents because of her mother’s early death. When she was 19, she met William Scharlieb in London, where William, a person of German descent, was studying law. Mary and William married much against the wishes of her parents in December 1865. William decided to practise law in India and soon after their marriage they sailed to Madras where William set up his practice. In Madras, they had a son in 1866, a daughter in 1868, and a son in 1870.

While in Madras, William edited the Madras Jurist, a journal for practising lawyers. Mary Anne helped him in this task. On one occasion, she had the opportunity to read Sir Joseph Frayer’s article on the plight of Indian women during childbirth. They were restricted from seeking medical help during complications, mainly because the medical practitioners then in India were men. (Frayer was the President of the Medical Board of the India Office, London.) Reading the article affected Mary Anne deeply. Her interest to study medicine was whipped up. She joined midwifery training. In addition, she offered voluntary service as a ‘nurse’ at the lying-in hospital in Madras, (Madras General Hospital?). This was when Edward Balfour pioneeringly decided to open the gates of Madras Medical College for women. Mary Anne was one of the first four women to take advantage of this opportunity. She was admitted to pursue a Licentiate in Medicine & Surgery (LM&S), a three-year programme then offered at Madras Medical College. In her own words: “I explained my views and desires as to the medical education of women to Dr. Balfour. He most kindly offered to take me to the Lying-in Hospital and to commend me to the practical teaching of its Superintendent, Surgeon-Major Cockerill...”

She graduated in 1878.

That same year, she returned to England with her children, travelling in a small ship, her eyes fixed on a degree in medicine. On her return to England she met *Dr. Elizabeth Anderson, the only qualified medical woman until 1877*, who had just then started the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW). Mary Anne’s extended stay in India and her frail physique did not impress Anderson. She thought that Mary Anne was physically unfit to pursue a stressful degree programme. Mary Anne persevered and was finally accepted as a student at LSMW in 1879. In November 1882, at the age of 37, she was awarded her MB degree by the University of London, with Honours in all subjects and a gold medal in obstetric medicine. Mary Anne was the first woman to win this distinction in the annals of the University of London. Winning the gold medal entitled her to a scholarship to further enhance her skills in surgical obstetrics. She availed herself of the opportunity and went to Vienna (Austria) to train in surgical obstetrics.

Her perseverance impressed Sir Henry Acland, a leading name in English medicine at the time. Sir Henry enabled her to meet Queen Victoria, who raptly listened to Mary Anne on the state of Indian women who, she explained, were denied help from male doctors due to their faith and who were relegated to the ignorance of the native midwives who attended on them during childbirth. Queen Victoria warmly approved Mary Anne’s interest in the need to train women medical doctors in India.

Mary Anne and William returned to Madras in 1883. She was keen on establishing an exclusive women’s hospital in Madras. With support from the then Government, largely influenced by Edward Balfour, who was the Surgeon-General at the time, the Queen Victoria Hospital for Caste and Gosha Women was founded in Moore’s Garden, Nungambakkam. (Moore’s Road, connecting Moore’s Garden, celebrates the name of George Moore, who belonged to Madras Civil Service, was the Civil Auditor until 1814, and died in Madras in 1834).

Lady Grant Dufferin, along with eminent local persons such as Kasturi Bashyam Iyengar, R. Raghunatha Rao, the Raja of Vizianagaram, (Justice) S Muthuswamy Iyer, the Raja of Venkatgiri, and Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, played a key role in developing this facility. The government donated a site in Triplicane (Chepauk) in 1890 and also donated a sum of Rs.10,000. The main building was constructed through the munificence of the Raja of Venkatgiri who donated Rs.  1,00,000. The hospital moved to this location in June 1890 and remains there. The Madras Government took over the management of the hospital in April 1921. That this hospital established a name for itself through the sustained efforts of pioneering women doctors of yesteryears of Madras, such as Mary Beadon, Hilda Mary Lazarus and E Madhuram, has already been narrated in these pages.

Mary Anne returned to England in 1887. On her return she secured her MD and MS degrees from the University of London, earning the rare distinction of being the first Englishwoman to secure these academic titles. She rose in the ranks and presided over the annual meeting of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology section of the British Medical Association in 1910.

She wrote several books and papers on the importance of the mother’s health in the context of children’s health. She was decorated with a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1917 and made a Dame of the British Empire in 1926. She died in England in 1930 at the age of 85, leaving an admirable legacy.

As I was writing this piece, I was struck by an amazing, coincidental, parallel that both Mary Anne in Madras and Ida Scudder in Tindivanam were stimulated to study medicine by an identical trigger factor, although Ida’s professional life in North Arcot started 30 years later, by when Mary Anne had returned to England.

Mary Scharlieb explains the purpose of Reminiscences, her autobiography (1924), as follows:

“… my object is to convince medical women students and junior practitioners that a successful, happy, and useful career can be, and ought to be, the guerdon of their toil, though inasmuch as we can never get more out of any enterprise than we put into it, they are likely to find that success and opportunities of usefulness will vary directly with the vigour that they put into their studies and the love that they bring into professional practice. It is impossible to do the maximum amount of good to one’s patients if one attempts to serve their bodies only. The real success and value of medical and surgical work is in proportion to the degree with which physicians and surgeons recognise the threefold nature of those whom they desire to serve.”

I felt these words inspirational. I am confident that many women doctors and those aspiring to become ones too would experience what I felt.

Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson) in 1865 got a Society of Apothecaries certificate to practise medicine. She qualified as a doctor in France in 1870.

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In this issue

Are concrete roads the answer?
A dubious first – Chennai tops garbage creation
Resolving to Make Natya Respectable
Murdochs Madras Ancestor also Faced Charges
The Emperor of the Tamil Stage
The Banyan and The Bo
A Chief Merchant who Ruled Madras from Without
The Pioneering Woman Doctor
When Varsity Cricket Reigned

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Madras Eye
Dates for Your Diary


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