To Love, To Learn, To Be a Woman: An Inspirational Story For All

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Penelope Cure ('23) Edited by Nidhi Ponkshe ('23)

If you’ve spent a few hours on Instagram every day for the past few years like I have, then you may have stumbled upon this picture on your feed. For a long time, I scrolled past without pondering about the lives and accomplishments of these three women. However, after having seen this photo several times on social media with hashtags like #women, #medicine, and #womeninSTEM, I decided to look further into this photo. Why was it on my feed, why did they use these hashtags, and more importantly, who were these women?    


This photo, taken in 1885, showcases the first female doctors of Western medicine from India, Japan and Syria, posing in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. The three women had to forfeit their past lives and their families to follow their dreams of becoming physicians. Dr. Joshee left her husband back in Seranysore to become a doctor. She wanted to become the first female physician of Western medicine in India to ensure women could be examined safely, since even women of higher social ranking still had little to no access to professional doctors. Dr. Okami left Japan to study in Pennsylvania against her family’s orders, as her parents disowned and banned her from returning home if she ever tried to return to Japan afterwards. Whilst very little is known about Dr. Islambooly, it can be assumed that she had a lot to leave behind in order to pursue her dream as well. 



In the late nineteenth century, women had little to no control over their education and marriage, much less politics or women’s rights. It was not until 1893 that New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote, and it was not until 1920 that women had a say in American politics. What shocks most people when seeing this photograph is usually how early this picture was taken. If women could not even vote, how come they had access to medical school? 


Women like our three dreamers had to leave their families behind and travel thousands of kilometers to be able to pursue their dreams, as women were only allowed to practice modern medicine in developed countries such as England and the United States at the time. As a result, our three ambitious ladies all found themselves in Pennsylvania, with just enough money to pay for the tuition to try to apply to the college. Founded in 1850, the WMCP was the first Women’s Medical College in the world. It allowed women to learn the knowledge and skills required to become a qualified doctor. It offered all the necessary facilities for women to access what society had prohibited them from learning. The program consisted of 2 years of study and let women not only learn the theoretical aspects of medicine, but also to practice on real patients during clinical and surgical training. The fact that women not only wanted to practice medicine on real patients, but were also able to, completely baffled 19th century Pennsylvanian society. Popular myths of the time decreed that studying was a menace to motherhood, and that it could even cause infertility and hysteria. Harvard gynecologist Edward H. Clarke even explained the reasoning behind these myths, claiming that “a woman's system never does two things well at the same time.” The medical college faced a number of hardships during the 19th century, such as being frowned upon by Men’s Medical Colleges and being refused many opportunities to collaborate with them. The WMCP had to build its own hospital wing on their campus for students to practice clinical and surgical work on patients, because hospitals refused to allow female medical students to study in their buildings. 


However, despite society’s malevolence, the WMCP was still able to shape thousands of women into physicians, many who made groundbreaking discoveries that would change medicine forever. These women not only became wonderful doctors that helped other women and advocated for their health, but they also became a source of inspiration for future generations, motivating little girls to try to pursue their dreams, even if their ambitions to become great scholars were frowned upon. In 1885, the three women were officially licensed physicians of Western medicine. Whilst it would be wonderful to hope that this story would have a happy ending, this is unfortunately not the case. After graduating, very little knowledge existed about these women’s careers in medicine. There was no information about Dr. Islambooly; Dr. Okami decided to return to Japan, but had no patients as people did not trust women with licenses in Western medicine, and had to close down her practice; and Dr. Joshee died of Tuberculosis at age 21, before she could even return to India and practice medicine. 


When looking at these women’s stories, what should we, as young and bright women of the 21st century, take away from this snippet of women’s history? Does this mean that following our dreams may lead to tragic ends like what happened to our 3 aspiring doctors? Does this mean that we should see what happened to them as a warning?  Tragically inspiring stories like Dr. Joshee’s or Dr. Okami should be seen as a way to push ourselves harder into believing our dreams can become a reality, despite the additional difficulties women face in the workforce. We should see this story as a way to commemorate the women that have worked hard to break the barriers that we no longer have to face, and remember them not only during Women’s History Month but all year-round. We should take our motivations and our achievements and see them as a homage to the women that have tried to do what we achieved, but who were held back by society. We should be ambitious and reach for our goals, knowing that the women of the past would be proud, and that the women of the future would be inspired by our tenacity. These women have left an incredible legacy behind and I hope that we can too. 


Happy Women’s History Month.



Fee, Elizabeth, and Theodore M. Brown. “‘An Eventful Epoch in the History of Your Lives.’” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 94, no. 3, Mar. 2004, pp. 367–67, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Jefferson, Laura, et al. “Women in Medicine: Historical Perspectives and Recent Trends.” British Medical Bulletin, vol. 114, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 5–15, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Mar. 2023, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

“Historical Photos Circulating Depict Women Medical Pioneers.” The World from PRX, July 2013, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Edward Hammond Clarke.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Mar. 2023, Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

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