A Forgotten Force
Anuradha Srinadhuni | Jawaharlal Nehru University
In June 1940, K. Vesu Ammal decided to join the Second World War. A student of Stanley Medical College in Madras, Vesu Ammal was yet to finish her studies. In Europe, the Nazis were marching on Paris, and Winston Churchill famously electrified the House of Commons with his 'We shall fight on the beaches' speech. Amidst such spectacular developments, Vesu Ammal’s application for recruitment was quietly filed away and her story, perhaps understandably, forgotten.
Yet such applications reveal the history of an emergency women doctor’s force that was created in India during the Second World War. Why did these women want to join the war? What was their religious background? Did they expect the same treatment as their male counterparts?
There was no real precedent for such a scheme in colonial India. The Countess of Dufferin Fund, established in 1885, provided scholarships to women in the medical field but was solely concerned with improving women’s healthcare in India. Some early attempts to organise women doctors in the form of military medical service include the Women’s Medical Service, which was officially inaugurated in September 1913. However, this organization was still in its infancy when the First World War broke out and, as such, had hardly any involvement in the war. Yet, by July 1940, the necessity of employing women doctors in a wholly unprecedented manner was beginning to dawn on the officials. Lt. Colonel Rupert Hay, the Deputy Director of the Indian Medical Service conceded that, as the IMS Civil War Reserve and other civil forces were depleted, a certain number of women doctors would have to be employed.
The terms and conditions of employment were finally approved in January 1942.
Women medical practitioners, both Indian and European, were to be recruited as a “temporary war measure” to the Emergency Cadre of the IMS. These recruits were not going to be merely stationed in military hospitals in India, or work as civil practitioners to replace men, but were in fact liable for full general service, both in India and overseas.
Despite this, they were denied commissions and granted only relative rank. Proper rank and full commissioned status for women were being demanded by civilian groups in Britain after the First World War. Jane Walker, the President of the Medical Women’s Federation, explained how “working without rank among a body of men where the whole discipline depends on badge and rank, they have not the authority necessary to carry out their duties, the authority which they unquestionably have in civilian hospitals.” No matter how many years they served, they had no command over even the youngest, most inexperienced male orderlies. This situation seemed particularly insulting to senior women doctors.
The terms of pay are seemingly more equitable. Women doctors were given various emoluments, gratuity pay and a disability pension. Hay went so far as to state, “It is outside human nature to accept lower wages for work of an identical nature and for equal duration, particularly when such women doctors are able to do a full day’s work as efficiently as men IMS officers.” Women Doctors joined with the relative rank of Lieutenant and could become Captain after one year of service. However, the pay scale proposed by Hay was significantly reduced to arrive at the amounts given in the following table:
Basic Pay (in Rs.) per month
Overseas Pay (In Rs.) not including Burma
Captain, during the 1st year
Captain, during the 2nd and 3rd year
Captain, during the 4th year
In addition, male Specialists were entitled to an extra 100 Rupees(Rs.) per month and given the acting rank of Major. Mark Harrison has pointed out how a general trend towards specialization began to emerge in British medicine following the First World War. The War Office believed that medical specialisation would deliver quicker and better treatment. The extra sum was promised to women who were given Specialist appointments as well, and in fact, the Emergency Cadre initially employed only Specialist doctors until July 1942.
However, it was not guaranteed that these women would be given Specialist posts. Their superior skill could very well be used at a lower pay grade and relative rank. Their families were also not entitled to the travelling concessions that the men received, despite being expected to serve overseas. Further,the disability pension was calculated according to what women in the British Royal Army Medical Corps received, rather than male doctors recruited to the IMS.
It is interesting to note that a committee of high-society women was appointed to decide the uniform for this cadre. While female input was not considered necessary to determine the matter of commission and pay, their opinion was duly sought for the question of outfit.
Nevertheless,the uniform was a symbolic victory. Women doctors of the First World War were not given uniforms at all but now the IMS proposed two variants: one Western and one Indian, both bearing the IMS crest.
The Indian style uniform included khaki or cotton saris in the IMS colours of gold and blue, with the badges of rank embroidered in worsted silk on the blouse sleeves. A tunic type of coat with the IMS insignia could be worn on top. Funnily enough, the cloth merchants who provided a sample uniform for the government’s deliberations asked if their company’s name could be mentioned somewhere on the tunic. B. Lilaram & Sons felt that the doctors would give great publicity to their design and desired to capitalise on their appearance.
K. Vesu Ammal, with whom we began this article, was studying to become a Licentiate Medical Practitioner (LMP). Unlike doctors with a Bachelor of Medicine, and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degree, LMPs did not require any undergraduate training before admission and were generally seen as inferior in qualification. However, the vernacular LMP, with its shorter duration, had the advantage of being more accessible to many since higher education for women was still being discouraged.
Further down in medical rank, were those with Diplomas in Medicine & Surgery (DMS). This internal hierarchy was largely maintained during the war as well, with differential pay and rank based on qualification. Yet, the fact that both DMS practitioners and post-graduate MD specialists were being accepted in the service by July 1942 clearly shows that the government needed all hands on deck and the work of these women was desperately important.
At the time of writing her letter, Vesu Ammal hoped to soon complete her course in midwifery. Sociologist Mita Bhadra has pointed out how midwives and nurses have historically received more acceptance than women physicians, with the role of doctor being largely associated with men. Of course, by the 1930s, the number of women doctors had significantly increased, with the acceptance of women at men’s universities and the opening of all-women medical schools. However, women doctors continued to limit their specialisation to certain areas like gynaecology - closest to women’s bodies and furthest from men.
Officials feared that close contact between Indian women doctors and male soldiers could cause outrage. In an October 1941 letter, Deputy-Director Hay can be seen reassuring the Director that since nurses were already employed in charge of male patients without any prejudice, the work of doctors should not create any problem. “Actual contact with patients will last a few minutes only, as compared to that of Indian nurses,” writes Hay. The application form later released by the IMS provided an option to only perform Gynaecological work instead of general duty.
Like Vesu Ammal,several of the applicants studied or worked in missionary institutions. For instance, Chinmayee Devi served as the “Lady Doctor” in charge of the Red Cross Society in Sylhet. Christianity may be seen as a common thread linking many of the applications, both in the form of education and employment, as well as a matter of personal faith. Indeed, the medical field was dominated by Christian women throughout the period of colonial rule and this seems to be reflected in the applications under study. The overrepresentation of the Parsi, a small but wealthy ethnoreligious community that traces its origins to ancient Iran, can be explained by their resources affording greater access to western medical education.
Some of the applicants came from regions that had already been occupied by the Nazis and were motivated by their first-hand experiences. Olga Weiner was a Czechoslovakian refugee living in Surat. For eighteen years, she had worked as a medical professional in her country and even received a medal of recognition from the President before ending up in a Nazi prison for six months. Having escaped to India, she was ready to join the war effort against the Nazis once more. Similarly, Ethel Wacher was a Polish citizen who had registered with the Bombay Medical Council. Like Weiner, she too possessed an MD degree but stated, “I am even prepared to act as a nurse in any military hospital.”
Others emphasised their economic concerns. The war had dealt a serious blow to Indian exports and also created a disastrous shortage of food grains.While women doctors certainly came from relatively privileged backgrounds, the impact of wartime inflation is still evident in their letters. For instance, Helena W. G. Ripley was a 28-year-old gynaecologist in the Meerut Cantonment whose husband worked for the RAF in London. With no maintenance money being received, she desired to earn her own living and applied to work immediately.
After receiving the customary reply from Hay that her name was noted but it was unlikely that her services would be required anytime soon, she hastened to send a second letter.Filled with exclamations and underlined words, this handwritten note points out the inconsistencies in the government’s conduct, questioning why the recruitment was widely advertised if they did not require any services. Drawing upon her memories as a schoolgirl during the First World War, Ripley highlights her patriotism and states that this time she was independent enough to help both herself and others. Promising to give her “own hard earning” to the War Fund, she reiterates her need to work.
Notions of morality and pride were also evoked. Malcha Lily Salem, a House Surgeon in a Government Hospital in Madras, wrote that there was no reason to deny ladies in India an opportunity to fight against the “forces of evil.” She was encouraged by the news of women doctors being recruited in England and, in fact, hoped to receive a commission. Such a development was unheard of at the time. Possessing an MBBS degree from the Madras Medical College, she further stated that it would bring honour to the institution if she, as an alumnus, became the first woman to serve in the war. Salem believed that women doctors like her could be useful in many places, including at the front.
To summarise, candidates with varying levels of educational qualification were being accepted into the service, indicating the pressing need for medical personnel. Physical contact between women doctors and male soldiers challenged the social norms of the time but was justified by emphasising that the contact was minimal. Though small in number, the doctors who applied for this service were not a homogenous group by any means. Some were colonial subjects while others belonged to the metropole or came from other countries. They belonged to different faiths and joined for different reasons. Some were personally affected by the Axis forces; others were driven by economic needs or saw it as a matter of honour.
However, a number of striking commonalities can be identified. The application letters show how women doctors were unafraid of voicing their demands and stayed aware of various developments. Though some of them spoke about how they cannot serve in the same manner as their male colleagues, they are nonetheless assertive in their tone and ambitious in their offers of service. Most importantly, the applications collectively represent an act of feminine agency in an overwhelmingly masculine sphere.
Harrison, Mark, Medicine and victory: British military medicine in the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Sehrawat, Samiksha, Colonial Medical Care in North India: Gender, State and Society, c. 1840-1920 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Watson, Janet S. K, Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory, and the First World War in Britain, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Mukherjee, Sujata, Gender, Medicine, and Society in Colonial India: Women’s Health Care in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017)
Anuradha Srinadhuni is a postgraduate in Modern History from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently working on a project focusing on the Indian Independence Movement.