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A Forgotten Pioneer: Rupa Bai Fardoonji, The World’s First Lady Anaesthetist!

In a field that was dominated by men at the time, Rupa Bai Fardoonji walked on her own path to become the first lady anaesthesiologist!

Rupa Bai Fardoonji was a small-built young lady. She was extremely quiet and shy. From her appearances, anybody could hardly guess that she was a brilliant student of Hyderabad Medical School and the first-ever girl to enter the prestigious institution.

Rupa was always the earliest one to come to her classes and never skipped a single lecture. After the classes were over, she would run to the college library and immerse herself in all sorts of books till late evening. As she hardly talked to her classmates and teachers, none could know anything about her whereabouts. All they knew about her, was that she was a Parsee and her full name was Rupa Bai Fardoonji.

The journey of  Rupa Bai Fardoonji began when Hyderabad Medical School opened its doors for women

The Nizams of Hyderabad had always been enthusiastic patrons of culture, education and art in the state. Following his great family tradition, Nizam Nasir-ud-daula Asafjah V established the Hyderabad Medical School in 1846.

The curriculum was of the up-to-date western medical system, but the Nizam insisted on making Urdu, the medium of instruction, which was also the state’s official language. As all the professors were British, there were efficient translators and scribes, who used to translate their English lectures into Urdu. Lastly, after the successful completion of a 4-year medical course, the new physicians would get the degree of Hakeem, instead of Doctor as per Nizam’s wish.

In 1885, renowned surgeon Dr Edward Lawrie joined the Hyderabad Medical School as the principal. A broad-minded doctor and teacher, he successfully persuaded the then Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan Asadjah to change the medium of instruction from Urdu to English and also succeeded in winning his approval in enrolling women in medical studies.

That very year, Hyderabad Medical School opened its prestigious gate forever for five meritorious female scholars and Rupa Bai Fardoonji was one of them.

Rupa Bai Fardoonji showed keen interest in anaesthesiology…

Not only a surgeon Dr Edward Lawrie was also a dedicated scientist. At that time he was world-famous for his research on the safe application and various side effects of the then-available anaesthetic and pain-relieving drugs like chloroform. Anaesthesia of patients before surgery had long been the foundational part of any kind of surgical procedure. But till the late 19th century, anaesthesiology was never regarded as an independent branch of medical science, so the application of anaesthetic drugs was done by the surgeons themselves and unconscious patients during the procedure were put into the care of senior medical students or experienced nurses.

Lawrie popularized and taught anaesthesiology among his students in Hyderabad Medical School. Rupabai from the very beginning was interested in this yet to be explored area of medical science and started learning the nuances of anaesthesiology from Dr Lawrie. Soon she mastered the method of anaesthetizing patients and also started researching on such drugs and assisting her guide Dr Lawrie in his surgeries in her senior years.

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With the financial help of Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali, Dr Lawrrie summoned the 1st and 2nd International Chloroform Commission with the vision of encouraging extensive international researches on anaesthesiology. Rupabai was an active participant in both the commissions and presented her own research papers there. Her meritorious research and her abilities as an expert anaesthetist were praised by Dr Lawrie himself in his book “A report on Hyderabad chloroform commissions” (published 1891). 

In 1889, after receiving the ‘Hakeem’ degree, Rupabai joined the Nizam’s medical service as a full-time doctor and specialist anaesthetist. She worked in Hyderabad’s Sultan Bazar, Afzalgunj and Janana hospitals with the fullest dedication up to 1909. But Rupa like her medical school days was always keen to go deeper into science. Hence, she thought it would be great if she joined any famous western university to further her knowledge in anaesthesiology.

On reaching Edinburgh, Rupabai was startled that anaesthesiology as a separate branch of medical science wasn’t heard of!

In 1909 Rupabai sailed from the Bombay port for the famous Edinburgh University. She met famous British social worker and theosophist Annie Besant as her co-traveller in the ship and both became friends. Besant was deeply moved with the zeal and determination of the quiet young doctor, about which she later wrote in her memoirs. Besant even arranged accommodation for Rupa in Edinburgh by writing a recommendation letter to her acquaintance Mrs Drummonds there.

Rupabai finally reached the great Edinburgh with big dreams. India, even if a colony under the British, was way ahead of the rest of the contemporary world, in the field of anaesthesiology and many other branches of science. Rupabai was accustomed to that scientific culture all her life but soon got a sharp blow of reality when she found out that anaesthesiology, as a separate branch of medical science wasn’t even heard of in Edinburgh. Hence she had to enrol herself for diploma degrees in physics and chemistry, which were essential subjects for researching and working with anaesthetic drugs. Then she went to the renowned John Hopkins University in the U.S.A for obtaining more knowledge and higher degrees in medical science. Even if she got multiple proposals for staying and leading a comfortable life as a doctor abroad, she chose to return to her motherland immediately after the completion of her studies.

Despite getting offers of becoming a doctor abroad, Rupabai chose to serve her motherland

Rupabai forever being a committed physician, served at the hospitals of Edinburgh and John Hopkins. Even, while returning to India, when her ship anchored for a few days in the Port of Eden (Saudi Arabia), instead of relaxing, she gave her full-time service in the hospitals there. Her expertise and knowledge on anaesthesia were highly valued wherever she went, so much so that the Edinburgh and John Hopkins’ management and the British resident in Eden wrote the British authorities in Hyderabad to release her from the state’s medical service for the sake of people abroad. But Rupabai never agreed.

After returning to Hyderabad, Rupabai started working as a full-time anaesthetist in Chaderghat Hospital. Till her retirement in 1920 as the superintendent of the hospital, she tirelessly served her people both as a general physician and a specialist anaesthesiologist. As it was mentioned at the very beginning of this article, that Rupabai was an extremely introverted person, she kept herself completely away from any sort of publicity and left no trace of her personal life anywhere ever. Therefore, researchers haven’t been successful to find out any detail on her days after retirement till now.

But her outstanding contributions to anaesthesiology speak for her even after a century Rupa Bai Fardoonji was respectfully mentioned as the first lady anaesthesiast of the world, in the proceedings of the second International Conference of History of Anaesthesia in London in 1987.

At a time, when women in medical practice, throughout the world, were only a microscopic minority, Rupa Bai Fardoonji , fearlessly walked a path, which had never been explored before by any woman. She was absolutely unique in many ways. Not only did she leave her permanent mark as a devoted researcher and committed doctor, but she also dedicated almost her entire life towards the development of anaesthesiology as an integral part of modern medical science. Her lifelong decision to keep absolutely silent about her personal life and works also has made her character unparalleled in the annals of modern Indian medical history.

Sources :

  1. Dr. (Miss) Rupa Bai Furdoonji: World’s First Qualified Lady Anaesthetist – A Narayana, K Bharathi, PK Subhaktha, G Manohar, A Ramachari
  2. History Of Anaesthesia And Hyderabad Chloroform Commissions – Momin Ali And A.Ramachari
  3. Reckoning with Remembrance: The Life Of Rupa Bai Furdoonji -Sanjna Yechareddy

Image Source: Wikipedia

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Suchetana Mukhopadhyay

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