Lady Hardinge Medical College, located in the heart of New Delhi, is one of the premier medical institutions in the country. Established in 1916, it recently celebrated a centenary of existence. The seeds of its foundation, however, lie in the late 1800s, when the British colonial government began to take some reluctant interest in providing targeted medical care for women in India.
[All the images here were taken in 1921 and are courtesy the Wellcome Collection.]
British social reformers of the time had for some time been drawing attention to the unwillingness of many Indian families to let women be treated at dispensaries and hospitals, since that invariably entailed being seen and touched by male medical practitioners. As historians of medicine have shown, this was an incomplete and in many ways a distorted representation of Indian women (for example, there were also many women, especially from the so-called lower classes and castes, who used to visit these dispensaries and hospitals for medical aid). To quote Samiksha Sehrawat, who teaches at Newcastle University in the UK, the rhetoric at that time painted “a picture of Indian women as passive, undifferentiated recipients of medical aid… The figure of the ‘zenana’ or ‘purdah’ woman who would not receive medical care from a male physician—the zenana patient—was given considerable prominence in this rhetoric.” (From the book Colonial Medical Care in North India: Gender, State, and Society, c. 1840-1920.)
The government decided that the best way to provide medical care to Indian women was through women practitioners and in all-women hospitals. Several such hospitals began to be established in the 1880s and 1890s. A centralized funding system, officially the National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, was created in 1885 through the initiative of Lady Dufferin, wife of the then Viceroy of India. Apart from establishing the ‘Dufferin hospitals’, the Dufferin Fund and its associated scholarships were used to train Indian women in medicine (mostly as subordinate medical practitioners catering only to women’s ailments) and to train Indian dais in European midwifery techniques. (Maneesha Lal, The Politics of Gender and Medicine in Colonial India: The Countess of Dufferin’s Fund, 1885-1888)
By the early 1900s, it became clear that despite its many achievements, the Dufferin Fund efforts had not succeeded greatly in encouraging Indian women to train in medicine, or in encouraging Indian families to send their daughters to train in medicine. The few institutions where women could learn medicine were male-dominated – hence hardly any woman from the ‘elite’ castes and classes went there. Co-education did not align with patriarchal societal norms, and hence most “Indian families of high social status rejected the medical profession” as a suitable career for their women. Besides, these institutions provided only shorter degrees which trained women to be Sub-Assistant Surgeons or Hospital Assistants. (Sehrawat, The Foundation of the Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital for Women at Delhi).
This state of affairs was severely criticized by an independent association called the Association of Medical Women of India (AMWI), which primarily consisted of British women physicians practising in India. Beginning 1911, AMWI began a persistent and vocal campaign to persuade the British Indian government to establish a medical college for women, run by women. This campaign included a letter to Lady Hardinge, wife of then viceroy Lord Hardinge. The efforts bore fruit on March 17, 1914, when the foundation stone of the proposed new women’s medical college was laid in Delhi. (Lady Hardinge died a few months after this ceremony, and the college subsequently came to be named after her.)
The following excerpts from Lady Hardinge’s speech given during the foundation ceremony provide important insights into the making of the college. These were published in the Times of India on March 18 1914 (Courtesy ProQuest Historical Newspapers archive).
At the present time there are 89 female students scattered over the colleges of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Lahore, but very few of these are either Hindus or Mussulmans. The majority of them are either Parsis, native Christians or members of the domiciled [European] community, and it is obvious that if we wish to extend female medical aid to all classes of women of India we must increase the number of Hindu and Mahomedan medical women who thoroughly understand the ways, the customs, and the language of the zenana. When, therefore His Highness placed his proposal before me I conceived the idea of a medical college and hospital for women, the entire medical and tutorial staff of which should consist of medical women and which should be open to female medical students of all classes, creeds and nationalities. In this way originated the scheme, the first stage in the materialisation of which is marked by to-day’s ceremony.
The college was formally opened in February 1916.