At a time when women were not encouraged and quite often their applications were rejected, the Hyderabad Medical School, precursor to the present-day Osmania Medical College, had the distinction of producing the first woman anaesthetist in the world in Dr Rupa Bai Furdoonji, a Parsi from Hyderabad.
The medical school, which was set up by fourth Nizam Nasir-ud-Doulah in 1846, not only encouraged men to take up medicine, but also made sure that women too participated in the process.
Around 1885, during the reign of Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam, chief surgeon of British Residency Dr Edward Laurie, who later spearheaded Hyderabad Chloroform Commission, became the principal of Hyderabad Medical School and is credited with guiding Dr Rupa Bai to become an anaesthesia specialist.
“There is no doubt that the Nizams had a vision and they had planned everything for the future. In education and medicine, they not only concentrated on building infrastructure for the future, but also encouraged talent,” says historian and former professor with Osmania University Adapa Satyanarayana.
According to historians and research papers published in the Indian Journal of Anaesthesia (IJA), Dr Rupa Bai studied medicine at Hyderabad Medical School between 1885 and 1889, when Dr Laurie was the principal of the college. After completion of the course, the degree that she received was called as ‘Hakeem’.
“It’s a great achievement for Hyderabad for having produced the first woman anaesthetist in the world. It also reflects that Hyderabad was a forward looking society in those days,” points out nephrologist Dr A Gopal Kishan.
In their IJA research paper on Dr Rupa Bai, the researchers observed that in those days there was no separate speciality like anaesthesiology. Surgeons used to anaesthetise the patients and hand over the unconscious patient to the care of a nurse or medical student, the IJA paper said.
The talented Dr Rupa Bai was highly appreciated and as a result was also deputed to Edinburgh, UK, in 1909 to gain more experience and knowledge about anaesthetics.
According to historians in Hyderabad, since there was no separate qualification available in anaesthesia in those days, Dr Rupa Bai obtained diploma in physics and chemistry from Edinburgh University, because these subjects were very useful for doctors who handled anaesthetics.
Chronicling the life of Dr Rupa Bai
Hyderabad: Glimpses of life and times of Dr Rupa Bai Furdoonji have been meticulously chronicled by the National Institute of Indian Medical Heritage (NIIMH), which is attached to Osmania Medical College.
In the research paper that was published in Indian Journal of Anaesthesia (IJA), the Director of NIIMH Dr Narayana Ala says Harmusji Kause, who also hailed from Hyderabad, had preserved the original certificates and important letters pertaining to the career of Dr Rupa Bai Furdoonji and later handed them to NIIMH.
Dr Rupa Bai had extensively assisted Dr Laurie during the two Hyderabad Chloroform Commission studies and had widespread knowledge about anaesthesia. The first woman anaesthetist later in 1920 retired from Nizam’s medical service as superintendent of Chaderghat Hospital.
Interestingly, Dr Annie Besant, the founder president of Theosophical Society of India, had written a recommendation letter for Dr Rupa Bai,
According to historians, the Dr. Annie Besant and Dr. Rupa Bai were travelling in the same ship, which sailed from Bombay to Edinburgh. Dr Besant wrote a letter of recommendation to one Mrs Drummond dated April 27, 1909 for Dr Rupa Bai.
The handwritten letter, which is preserved by NIIMH, is on a letter head of Peninsular and Oriental Linear Ship Company and it urged Dr Drummond to help Dr Rupa Bai Furdoonji settle down in Edinburgh.
Dr Narayana in his paper notes that in those days, famous medical schools in England and America refused admission to woman candidates.
“Famous paediatric cardiologist Dr Miss Taussing of ‘Blalock-Taussing’ surgical technique for ‘Fallots tetralogy’ fame was refused admission in Harvard Medical School of Boston. But John’s Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, permitted Dr Rupa Bai to pursue the medical course,” Dr Narayana says.