Biographies such as Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions, Nandini Patwardhan’s engrossing biography of Dr. Anandibai Joshee, celebrate women while underscoring their plight.

Born in March 1865, married at the age of nine, and pregnant as a young teen, Joshee lost a son only 10 days following his birth. Because she had eagerly embraced education under her husband’s tutelage, she reasoned her loss was due to an absolute lack of healthcare for women. This led her to become a doctor.

A chance reading of an 1879 article in Missionary Review about Joshee and her goals, Theodocia Carpenter of Roselle, NJ, was compelled to write Joshee a letter, and upon receipt, Joshee replied. Over the next years, a deep, binding relationship—that of aunt and niece—developed between the women. Joshee arrived in the U.S. in 1883, where she was welcomed as an innovator, stayed with the Carpenters, and was awarded a scholarship to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Three years later, she was the first Indian woman to become a doctor.

Bold and brilliant, Joshee defied all expectations of her Brahmin caste and became well-known before she stepped onto the ship The City of Calcutta, her first leg of her voyage to America. Yet, she suffered all manner of difficulties as she moved toward her dream: Christian attempts to convert her in exchange for assistance; criticism from family and Indian society; the inability to obtain vegetarian food during her travel and while overseas; the onset of tuberculosis; and even abuse from her husband.

Image of Anandi Joshee as published in Frank Leslie’s Magazine. Feature written by Hans Mattson.
Image of Anandi Joshee as published in Frank Leslie’s Magazine. Feature written by Hans Mattson.

Through extensive research—Joshee’s letters to her husband, Carpenter, and others; primary sources written by those who knew and interacted with Joshee; contemporary articles—Patwardhan superbly chronicles the life of an inspiring young woman. She brings Joshee’s fierce spirit and determination to life a century and a half after Joshee was born. Patwardhan, who has lived in the U.S. for four decades, seamlessly employs the ability to present the story via what she calls her “insider-outsider perspective.” With strong, elegant writing combined with care to shed light on Indian culture under the British Raj, Patwardhan offers a captivating read.

I began to read this book on March 17, the day after Americans were advised to limit socializing, work remotely, and stay home from school for 15 days. Covid-19, the global pandemic, changed the way we live. Immediately, the story presented a sobering connection between Dr. Joshee and us. As Americans, we expect to enjoy a good life. What we don’t know, however, is what life will look like on the other side of this crisis. In the same way, Anandibai had expected a certain, prescribed life. Once she decided to do what no other Indian woman had thought to do, she had no idea what life would be like once she left home as a young girl in 1883.

Joshee’s life was short—just under 22 years—but her impact was great. She achieved what no Indian woman before her had dared and motivated others to follow suit. For all of the personal, cultural, social, and religious obstacles Joshee overcame during her journey toward her goal, she emerged as a true pioneer through will, determination, and focus. It is to Patwardhan’s credit that she has kept Dr. Joshee’s empowering story and spirit alive, especially during a time when some days may seem hopeless.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North and South Carolina where she is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She is working on an assortment of fiction projects. 

Radical Spirits: India’s First Woman Doctor and Her American Champions by Nandini Patwardhan. Story Artisan Press. 357 Pages.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....