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Muthulakshmi Reddy: Trailblazing Surgeon

Muthulakshmi Reddy: Trailblazing Surgeon

This is the story of a pioneer path-creator for women. Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was the first girl student in Maharaja’s School for Boys in Pudukkottai, the first Indian woman surgeon from Madras Medical College, the first Indian member of the Women’s Indian Association, the first woman member of the Madras Presidency legislature, the first woman deputy speaker and the first alderwoman.

In “Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights” (Niyogi Books/Paper Missile), V.R. Devika, describes the indomitable spirit of a woman who campaigned to get rid of the practice of wet nurses, fought for girls’ education, widow remarriage, equal property rights for women, education reform and rural healthcare for women. She also took up the case of abolishing the practice of declaring young girls as Devadasis.

Muthulakshmi was initially enrolled at a local school run out of a portico. When she decided to study further, young boys ran behind the bullock cart she traveled in, screaming that a “Devaradial” (Devadasi in Tamil) was going to school.

Soon after, all hell broke loose in Pudukkottai, which back then, only had a high school for boys. Some parents threatened to withdraw their sons from the school, stating that the presence of a girl born to a Devadasi would corrupt their minds, even after a curtain was drawn between the three girls and 40 boys in the class. A teacher decided to resign as well.

But the Maharaja of Pudukkottai went on to support Muthulakshmi and gave her a handsome scholarship of Rs 150 when she expressed her desire to study medicine in Madras.

She was also the first Indian woman surgeon from Madras Medical College. The Madras Medical College was shocked when she opted for surgery, as girls were considered faint-hearted and unable to withstand the sight of blood. Muthulakshmi, however, was adamant, and at the end of her four years, the white principal of the college was found running in the corridor of the institute, screaming with a piece of paper in his hands: “The first girl student for surgery has scored 100 percent in surgery!”

The monograph describes how Muthulakshmi established the Avvai Home for poor and destitute girls from where thousands of girls have graduated and found their feet as well. Thousands of poor women, including many from the Devadasi community, graduated from the institute and thrived in the anonymity granted by the bill. Those who desired to learn music and dance also did so.

She was the one who, after having a successful career as a specialist in gynecology and obstetrics, founded the Cancer Institute in Adyar, Chennai. It was when she saw her younger sister die of cancer that Muthulakshmi decided to specialize in treating the disease. She flew to London on a limited budget with her sons, and came back to establish the Adyar institute, one of the biggest in India.

The monograph also throws light on Muthulakshmi’s many interactions with Mahatma Gandhi (she became the Tamil interpreter of Gandhiji’s speeches and traveled with him in Tamil areas), Sarojini Naidu, K Kamraj, Annie Besant, Kamala Chattopadhyay, and many others.

Devika, when asked what inspired her to write the monograph, said: “Working as a volunteer in Avvai Home, talking to several women who wanted their Devadasi lineage hidden and who considered Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy a goddess, made me want to look at her life a little more closely.”  

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