Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Muthulakshmi Reddi: physician, activist, and social revolutionary

Sumana Vardhan
Chicago, Illinois, United States

“Muthulakshmi, the medical student.”
India International Centre, V. Shanta, 16 Mar. 2012

Born in 1886 under British rule in Tamil Nadu, India, Muthulakshmi Reddi faced an era of gender inequalities and fated child marriage. Despite the social limitations of the time, Reddi’s parents encouraged her interest in learning, breaking tradition to allow her to continue education past secondary school. Reddi applied to college, a move protested by Hindu orthodoxy because of her gender and social class, and was the first female admitted.1 She  continued to excel in school, graduating at the top of an all-male class as the first woman medical graduate in Tamil Nadu in 1912, later becoming House Surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital in Madras.

Her medical career began in a maternity home and women’s clinic, where she described her realization of “arbitrary rules and irrational customs” for women, as well as her determination to improve their lives.2 Her service to marginalized populations continued  as she began treating juvenile delinquents at the Varadappa Naidu Home, advocating for the children who she felt were victims of society rather than criminals. Both of these experiences brought the Hindu Dr. Reddi to join forces with both Christian and Muslim physicians, overcoming religious division to treat residents of numerous slums of Madras.3 She continued to care for girls and women whose physical and mental debilitation were caused by neglect, child marriage, repeated childbirths, and sexual abuse. Dr. Reddi’s passion to serve those neglected and mistreated by society brought requests for her to join the Madras Legislative Council.

In 1927 Reddi became the first Indian female legislator before independence in 1947.  She petitioned for women’s suffrage in Madras, increased age of consent for marriage, and most notably, abolished the Devadasi system.4 Traditionally, Devadasis were women ceremoniously wedded to Hindu deities, participating in religious duties at Hindu temples as well as preserving folk dance and music as a community of artists. A lineage that was once associated with the elite, Devadasis over time were left without land, education, or social support as societal systems were diluted, often turning to prostitution for income. Reddi passed the Madras Devadasis Act in 1947, which gave Devadasi women the right to marry and made it illegal to dedicate girls to places of worship, liberating women from a fate decided by their pedigree.5 Over her three-year governance, Reddi began fighting to overturn the customs of child marriage, eliminate caste distinctions, and improve female literacy and employment rates – issues that continue to plague Indian society today.

Reddi went on to become a founding member of the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) serving as an Indian delegate to conferences around the world and speaking for the progress of women  of all races and religions. As a trailblazer for women’s rights, she shared her experience of attaining partial suffrage for women in Madras, appointing over fifty female magistrates in municipal councils, and opening a number of girls’ schools at the 1926 International Suffrage Conference of Women in Paris and the 1933 Congress of Women in Chicago.6

“Dr. Reddi and the staff of the Avvai Home”
India International Centre, V. Shanta, 16 Mar. 2012

Many of Dr. Reddi’s initiatives are living tributes to her influence on society. Her desire to dismantle the caste system inspired the Avvai Home. Founded in 1930, this was the first rescue home for destitute women and orphaned children without any class or caste barriers.7 Reddi strongly believed that all women needed financial independence, which would only be possible through education. What started as the Avvai Home and Orphanage grew to include primary and secondary education, now providing free food, shelter, and education to over 180 young girls.

After losing her sister to a case of misdiagnosed rectal cancer, Dr. Reddi was inspired to build a cancer hospital in Madras. With the support of the WIA in 1954, she established the Adyar Cancer Institute, the first specialized center for cancer treatment in South India.8 She ensured that care would be provided irrespective of social or economic class. The Institute still stands today and serves as the Regional Cancer Centre for the state under government funding. In 1956, Reddi was awarded a Padma Bhushan award, the third-highest civilian award, in recognition of her services.9 She continued her fight for civil and women’s rights until she died  at the age of eighty-one.

Dr. Reddi’s work addressed issues that would later be referred to as social determinants of health, including education, women’s rights, and maternal mortality, and redefined conventional gender roles to improve opportunities for her sisters of all religions and classes. She exemplified the immensity of the role of a physician, working to uplift the human spirit not only through diagnosis and treatment, but also through social reform, support of marginalized communities, and passion to leave a positive impact on our world.


  1. Reddi, M. An Autobiography. Adyar, India: Avvai Home; 1964.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Raman SA. Women in India: A social and cultural history. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO; 2009, 169-172.
  4. Davesh, S. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India. University of Chicago Press. 2012, 110.
  5. Raman SA. Crossing cultural boundaries: Indian matriarchs and sisters in service. Journal of Third World Studies. 2001;18-131.
  6. Raman SA. Prescriptions for Gender Equality in South India: The work of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi. In: Long R. Charisma and Commitment in South Asian History: Essays presented to Stephen Wolpert. Mumbai, India: Orient Longman; 2004.
  7. Snehalatha, MS. Muthulakshmi Reddi: A social reformer. Academia and Society. 2015; 2(2): 68-72. eISSN:2393-8919.
  8. Krishna R, Rao LS. Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddi. 2nd edition. Bangalore, India: Sapna Book House; 2012.
  9. Shanta, V. Muthulakshmi Reddy – A Legend unto Herself. New Delhi, India: India International Centre; 2012. http://www.iicdelhi.nic.in/ContentAttachments/Publications/DiaryFiles/22612January212013_IIC%20Occasional%20Publication%2044.pdf

SUMANA VARDHAN, BA, is a third year medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine with interests in global and public health. She enjoys reading, writing, and exploring how to incorporate both into her future career.

Winter 2018



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