From being the first woman medical graduate of India to becoming the first woman member of a Legislative Council, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy’s journey is nothing short of inspiring.
In the midst of the bustling neighbourhood of Adyar in Chennai, a white building stands out prominently: The Cancer Institute. Over the years, the multi-storeyed building has become a symbol of hope for the hundreds who make their way to it, bodies ravaged by disease but spirits buoyed by optimism. The institute has saved thousands of lives since its inception in 1954; lives and families that would otherwise have been destroyed were it not for the efforts of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy.
On July 30, 1886, in the princely state of Pudukkottai, Narayanaswami Iyer and Chandramma welcomed a new member into their family – baby Muthulakshmi.
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Muthulakshmi was born in a day and age where the phrase ‘women must be seen and not heard,’ was often bandied about and used as an excuse to subvert the true potential of women. Not one to allow society to dictate her life choices, Muthulakshmi set out to write her own destiny, in the process breaking many barriers in the field of medicine, legislation and politics. Not only did this trailblazer do exceedingly well for herself in every endeavour she undertook, she also paved the way for the generations of women who came after her.
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At the young age of 13, Muthulakshmi’s keen mind and quick ability to grasp things made her a roaring success at school. Upon reaching maturity, she continued her education through home-schooling.
Muthulakshmi passed her matriculation examination with flying colours. Her excellent performance was the talk of town, especially since it translated into her qualifying for college admission. Muthulakshmi, who had always dreamed of becoming a graduate, confidently submitted her application for admission to the stunned principal and professors of Maharaja College, Pudukottai.
Her simple dream of pursuing her education was met with stunned silence that steadily grew into alarmed outrage by conservative sections of society. Bowing to social pressures, the college refused to admit her despite her impressive academic record. It was only when Martanda Bhairava Thondaman, the forward-thinking Raja of Pudukkottai stepped in and ordered them to take-in Muthulakshmi, that the college grudgingly accepted her application.
Muthulakshmi became the first woman in Pudukottai to pursue a college education, and in a men’s college, no less!
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For Muthulakshmi, this was only the beginning. After completing her under-graduation from her hometown, she sought – and successfully gained – admission into the Madras Medical College. It was during her college years that Muthulakshmi formed a deep friendship with Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant, two individuals whose personal philosophies would go on to influence many of her future endeavours.
With impressive single-minded focus, Muthulakshmi won the unique distinction of becoming the first woman medical graduate of India in 1912. She also went on to become the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, Madras.
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Muthulakshmi was pursuing her higher education in London when, upon a request from the Women’s Indian Association – an organisation she helped establish in 1918, she returned home to enter the Madras Legislative Council. She was elected to the post of Vice-President, making her the first Indian woman member of a Legislative Council.
The event also marked her entry into politics and legislation, an area in which her efforts led to a marked improvement in the lives of women everywhere. In her capacity as a legislator, Muthulakshmi helped raise the minimum age for marriage for girls. Concerned about human trafficking, she pushed the Council to pass the crucial Immoral Traffic Control Act.
Being the daughter of a devadasi herself, she was also distinctly aware of the treatment meted out to women like her mother. Their lack of political agency and the prejudices that coloured their every interaction with all members of society disturbed her. This pushed her to pass the path-breaking law on abolishment of the devadasi system; the reverberations of this legislation can be felt across generations even today.
She is believed to have remarked, “Laws and legislation are there only for sanction. It is up to us women to energize these and implement them into action.”
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Muthulakshmi realised that despite the devadasi system being abolished, there were still deeply-ingrained prejudices that many women freed from the shackles of this toxic system had to fight every day. This fact became more evident when, in 1930, three young devadasi girls knocked on her door, seeking shelter and protection.
When existing shelters failed to take in the girls, Muthulakshmi set out to create a safe haven for them and countless young girls like them: Avvai Home. Initially, the home was run out her own residence in Adyar.
Today, the home has grown to include an educational complex that houses a primary school, a secondary school, a higher secondary school as well as a teachers’ training Institution. While the home was started primarily for devadasis, its doors are open to all women who need assistance today.
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Having witnessed the painful and untimely death of her sister due to cancer, Muthulakshmi had also been toying with the idea of opening up a specialised cancer hospital. She dreamt of a place where anyone suffering from cancer would receive treatment, irrespective of social and economic status.
In 1954, after overcoming several hurdles, Muthulakshmi’s dream came to life with the Cancer Institute. It was the second specialised cancer centre in India and the first in South India at the time.
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Today, the Adyar Cancer Institute, as it is sometimes called, boasts of a 450-bed hospital, a full-fledged research division, a Preventive Oncology department, and the Dr Muthulakshmi College of Oncologic Sciences. The patients and families who have benefitted from this institute are numerous, and ever increasing.
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In 1956, in recognition of her wonderful work in the social sector, Muthulakshmi was awarded the Padma Bhushan.
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Muthulakshmi passed away in 1968 at the age of 81. Although she is no longer with us, her legacy lives on: in every devadasi who has won her freedom, in every girl who stands up against child marriage, in every woman who becomes a doctor, and in every individual whose life was transformed by the Avvai Home and the Cancer Institute.
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|Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy|
|Born||(1886-07-30)30 July 1886|
princely state of Pudukottai, Madras Presidency, India
|Died||22 July 1968(1968-07-22) (aged 81)|
|Known for||Social reformer, women's rights activist and writer|
Dr.S.Krishnamurthi and Mr.S.Rammohan.She has 3 surviving grandchildren-Drs.Lakshmi Bhattacharya in New Delhi,Chandra Rajendra in Melbourne,Australia and Sundaram Krishnamurthi,a head and neck surgeon in New York,USA.
Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy (30 July 1886, Madras – 22 July 1968) was an eminent medical practitioner, social reformer and Padma Bhushan awardee in India. She was the first woman legislator in India
Muthulakshmi Reddy was appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. For her, this nomination marked the beginning of her lifelong effort to "correct the balance" for women by removing social abuses and working for equality in moral standards. She was one of the women pioneers who stood for the cause of liberating India from the British. She was a women's activist and a social reformer.
Muthulakshmi had many firsts to her recognition. She was the first female student to be admitted into a men's college, the first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital, the first woman legislator in British India, the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board, the first woman Deputy President of the Legislative Council, and the first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation Avvai Home.
Muthulakshmi was born in the princely state of Pudukottai of Tamil Nadu. In spite of various constraints faced by girls in India of her time, she completed her higher education, and was admitted into the medical profession. In 1907, she joined the Madras Medical College, where she achieved a brilliant academic record. With several gold medals and prizes to her credit, Muthulakshmi graduated in 1912 to become one of the first woman doctors in India. Soon thereafter, she came under the influence of Annie Besant, and then of Mahatma Gandhi.
Her father was S. Narayanasami Iyer, the principal of Maharaja's College. Her mother was Chandrammal. S. Narayanasami broke with tradition and sent Muthulakshmi to school. Her enthusiasm for learning was so great that Muthulakshmi's teachers decided to instruct her in subjects beyond those approved by her father. At the onset of puberty she was obliged to leave school, but tutoring continued at home. Chandrammal wanted to search for a bridegroom but Muthulakshmi had different aspirations. She expressed a need to be a different woman from the common lot. She pitied women for their subordination to men and inwardly rebelled whenever she heard people say that only boys needed education.
When Muthulakshmi passed the matriculation exam she applied for admission to Maharaja's College but her application was not welcomed by the principal, or the parents of other students. Her gender was a factor and so was her background. The principal thought she might "demoralize" the male students. The somewhat enlightened Maharaja of Pudukottai ignored these objections, admitted her to the college, and gave her a scholarship. Her father suggested she become a school teacher but she had higher aspirations. She entered Madras Medical College, completed her studies in 1912, and became house surgeon in the Government Hospital for Women and Children in Chennai.
She later married Dr. Sundara Reddy on the demand that he promise to "always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes." In 1914, when she was twenty-eight years of age, they married in accordance with the 1872 Native Marriage Act.
She is the aunt of the Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and she was quoted as an inspiration by him early in his life.
Influences on Muthulakshmi Reddy
During her college years, Muthulakshmi met Sarojini Naidu and began to attend women's meetings. She found women who shared her personal concerns and addressed them in terms of women's rights. The two great personalities who influenced her life were Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Annie Besant. They persuaded her to devote herself to uplifting women and children. She worked for women's emancipation at a time when women were confined in the four walls of their room..
Reform works of Muthulakshmi
Muthulakshmi went to England for higher studies and she gave up her rewarding practice in medicine in response to a request from the Women's Indian Association (WIA) to enter the Madras Legislative Council. She was elected unanimously as its deputy president. She led the agitation for municipal and legislative franchise for women. She was concerned about the orphans, especially girls. She arranged for them free boarding and lodging and started the Avvai Home in Chennai.[not in citation given]
Muthulakshmi was the author of numerous social reforms. Her book My Experience as a Legislator records her service. She passed a resolution to establish a special hospital for women and children. The government accepted her suggestion and opened a children's section in the maternity hospital. She recommended systematic medical inspection of students in all schools and colleges, run by municipalities as well as other local bodies. Kasturba Hospital at Triplicane is a monument to her efforts.
Muthulakshmi Reddy was the president of the All-India Women's Conference. She passed the bill for the suppression of brothels and immoral trafficking in women and children. A home for girls and women was opened through her efforts to provide shelter to those rescued from brothels. Due to her efforts a hostel for Muslim girls was opened and scholarships were given for Harijan girls. She recommended to the government that the minimum age for marriage be raised to at least 21 for boys and 16 for girls.
Muthulakshmi also started the Cancer Relief Fund. This has now developed into an all-India institution combining therapy and research on cancer and attracting patients from all over India. She became the first chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board. Her work on the Hartog Education Committee, which incorporated a study of educational progress in India, is a great achievement. As a member of this committee she travelled extensively and studied the progress of women's education throughout the country. She was the only woman member of the committee and brought about many improvements. She was also the editor of Roshini, an important journal of AIWC.
Muthulakshmi Reddy continued to fight for her cause till the end of her days and never let anything stand in her way. Even at the age of 80, she was energetic and vibrant. Her human preoccupations took her away from politics and she stuck to her mission and Gandhian ways. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 1956. Her two outstanding monumental gifts for humanity remain the Avvai Home (for children) and the Cancer Institute.
She was nominated by Sakthi Hari Haran to the Madras Legislature as a member of the legislative council in 1926, and became the first woman to be a member of any legislature in India. When she was elected as the deputy chairperson of the legislative council, she became the first woman in the world to become the vice president of a legislature. She was the prime mover behind the legislation that abolished the Devadasi system and played a keen role in raising the minimum marriage age for women in India. In 1930, she resigned from the Madras Legislature as a protest following the imprisonment of Mahatma Gandhi. She argued for the removal of the Devadasi system that was widely prevalent in Tamil Nadu at that time against stiff resistance from the Congress lobby led by Sathyamoorthy Aiyar. She was the founder-president of the Women's Indian Association (WIA) and became the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation.
Dr Reddy was actively involved with setting up of several toilets and women's toilets, and initiated measures to improve the medical facilities given to slum dwellers. In 1930, she founded Avvai, a home for destitute women and orphans at Besant Avenue, Adyar. As an MLC, she introduced a scheme of free education for girls up to class eight.
Adyar Cancer Institute
During her address at the Centenary celebration of 1935, she declared her desire to start a hospital for cancer patients. With the overwhelming support of like-minded people, the foundation stone for Adyar Cancer Institute was laid by Sakthi Hari Haran in 1952. The hospital, which started functioning on 18 June 1954, was only the second of its kind in India. It is today a world-renowned institution offering treatment to nearly 80,000 cancer patients every year.
Awards and books
Her book My Experience as a Legislator recounts her initiates in respect of social reforms taken by her in the Madras Legislature.
Government of India conferred on her Padma Bhushan in 1956 in recognition of her meritorious services to the nation.