Dr. Dossibai Dadabhoy (nee) Patell – a trailblazing gynaecologist

the first Indian woman to take a medical degree abroad, & the first female member of England's Royal College of Surgeons, the story of Dossibai Patell is marked by many firsts.

In 1910, Dossibai Rustomji Cowasji Patell became the first female member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 1912, she completed her MD at the London School of Tropical Medicine, becoming the first Indian woman to do so.

At a time when women were restricted to the role of nurses, Dossibai emerged as a pioneer. As a woman of colour in Britain, she battled discrimination and sexism to establish her career in obstetrics and gynaecology.

Dossibai Patell in a group photo at the London School of Tropical Medicine
Dossibai Patell in a group photo at the London School of Tropical Medicine.

However, it isn’t her personal achievements that make her a hero; her relentless efforts towards advocacy for reproductive health and safeguarding the interests of obstetricians and gynaecologists in India are part of her trailblazing legacy. 

The fascinating, and inspiring story of Dr. Dossibai Rustomji Cowasji Patell 

Dossibai was born into a wealthy Parsi family in Fort, Bombay, in October, 1881. She completed her medical training at Grant Medical College in Bombay in 1903, gaining her Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery. 

In the 19th century, it was common practice for Parsi women to give birth at home, often in unhygenic conditions. The prevalence of postpartum infections was high and many mothers succumbed to sepsis. Dossibai’s early stint at Bombay’s first maternity hospital – the Parsi Lying-in Hospital – paved the way for her future career in maternal healthcare.

Parsi Lying In Hospital - Bombay's first maternity hospital
The Lying-In hospital was founded in 1887 by Sir Temulji Bhicaji Nariman (1848-1940), a Parsi obstetrician. 

Dossibai later travelled to England for further medical training. She studied at the Royal Free Hospital (London School of Medicine for Women) for four years. 

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), England

Before the Medical Act 1876, women in the UK were not allowed to qualify as doctors or surgeons. In 1895, the RCS received a petition from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (the first Englishwoman to qualify openly as a physician and surgeon), to allow women to study at the college.

In 1908, the RCS polled its existing Members and Fellows on whether women could be admitted to the college. The poll was successful and, in 1909, the RCS approved the admission of women to the college.

Dossibai then became its first Member (MRCS). She also became the Royal College of Physicians’ first woman licentiate after passing the Conjoint Exam with the College of Surgeons in 1910. 

Newspaper clipping of Dr. Dossibai Patell

Dossibai’s return to India : a career in medicine and advocacy

After returning to India in 1912, Dr. Dossibai pursued a career in obstetrics and gynaecology. She had married in the meantime and was now known as Dossibai Jehangir Ratenshaw Dadabhoy. She was particularly passionate about reducing maternal mortality and was interested in the subject of gynaecological malignancies. 

Dr. Dadabhoy opened her own maternity clinic; later, she became the first person in India to acquire, possess and administer radium. She provided her radium therapy to major hospitals for treatment of women’s diseases and cancers. 

“Her expertise and experience led to her appointment to various prominent posts. She was Honorary Obstetrician and later Honorary Surgeon at the Cama and Albless Hospital for women and children in Mumbai, the first Indian woman to serve as president of the Association of Medical Women in India, and the first woman president of the Bombay (Mumbai) Obstetric and Gynaecological Society. She was also instrumental in establishing other obstetrics and gynaecology societies across India, which later joined together to create the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Societies of India.”

– LOWRI JONES , SENIOR CURATOR, ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS ARCHIVE

Amidst her many firsts, Dossibai also led and established the first blood transfusion service in India during the Second World War while serving at the Red Cross Society. 

Dr. Dossibai earned the admiration and respect of all, including an M.B.E (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). She was invited to lecture at Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College and the King Edward Memorial Hospital when these were established by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. It was the first time that a female doctor was appointed a teacher. 

Dr. Dossibai’s determination and pioneering achievements continue to serve as an inspiration for women doctors today.   

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