Today let’s remember Gandhi and Mary too!

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by M G Radhakrishnan

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Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose
Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose | Mathrubhumi Archives

This day as the world celebrates Gandhiji’s 152nd birthday, marks yet another milestone too. The centenary of the country’s first legislation that gave women the right to be lawmakers. The landmark legislation was made in Travancore and the woman who made the first step into history was the legendary Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose (1886-1977) who was also the country’s first Surgeon General. Dr. Lukose was nominated to the Travancore’s legislative council (Sree Chitra State Council) on 23 September 1924 by another formidable Travancore woman, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the Regent Maharani. The legislation that enabled the revolutionary step was passed on 2nd October of 1921 during the reign of Moolam Tirunal Rama Varma.

For some reason, Dr. Lukose’s place in history was overlooked in many documents and was bestowed upon another legendary Indian woman, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy. In 2019, the Google Doodle had celebrated Dr. Reddy as the first Indian woman legislator on her 133rd birth anniversary on 30th July. This made NS Madhavan, ace writer, and former bureaucrat tweet a correction that Dr. Reddy was nominated to Madras Legislature only two years after Dr. Lukose. Madhavan also mentioned that both the amazing ladies had similar lives as doctors and social reformers with even the same year of birth! Wikipedia gives both the great women even the same date of birth -July 30, 1886- although Dr. Lukose was born three days after Dr. Reddy!

Dr. Lukose was one of the remarkable women mentioned by Robin Jeffrey as symbols of women’s progress that made Kerala, a model state. Dr Lukose’s contribution is to be remembered again during these times of COVID when Kerala’s famed public health system has won universal praise. For Dr. Lukose, Kerala’s first woman graduate and gynecologist who delivered the state’s first caesarian baby too was instrumental in the birthing of the Kerala Model of Health. She trained the first batch of professional midwives in Travancore helping Kerala even today to top the country in indices like infant mortality, maternal mortality, etc.

Dr. Lukose’s life was a saga of resistance and survival against entrenched prejudices and discrimination prevalent during the period. Born as a single child to a well-off Syrian Christian family of Aymenam (immortalized by Arundhati Roy) Kottayam, the baby Mary was deprived of maternal care due to her mother’s ill-health. So she was brought up by her loving father Dr. T E Punnen who was one of Travancore’s earliest medical doctors and also the royal physician. They lived in Thiruvananthapuram near the Secretariat (the road where their house stood is named Mary Poonen Road) and after passing matriculation with distinction, Mary wanted to be a doctor like her father. Though she was enrolled as the first female student in Maharaja’s College (today’s University College), she was denied admission for the Science course. Reason? Females were not allowed to study science even during the early 20th century. This made her join History and became Travancore’s first woman graduate in 1909. Later as it was difficult for women to get admission for medicine, she sailed to study at London University and become the first Malayali woman medical graduate. After gaining degrees in gynecology and pediatrics too, Mary worked for some time in various hospitals in London when she attended to the wounded in the First World War. While in London, she also picked a certificate in music. Mary returned to Kerala after her father died, crestfallen. “On reaching home, she found her father's property stripped of all possessions. There wasn't even a cup to drink from. She used to say that she went to England like a princess and came back like an orphan” according to “Trailblazer”, a recent biography.

Nonetheless, Mary’s career soared in Travancore where the Maharani appointed her the palace physician, a legislator, and finally the surgeon general in charge of all the hospitals in Travancore. She launched many steps to modernize Travancore’s public health system to the highest standards. Married to lawyer KK Lukose, they had a son -KP Lukose- who became a diplomat and a daughter -Grace- who also graduated in medicine from London like her mother. But Dr. Mary’s old age was filled with deep grief as both her children preceded her in death. Her biggest blow was the tragic death of her daughter, Dr. Grace (36), a Professor at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College in a freak accident. Dr Grace -she was unmarried- was in Thiruvananthapuram to celebrate the Christmas of 1954 with her mother and brother’s family. On the day after Christmas, her brother’s wife Aley Lukose’s hair was accidentally caught within the revolving blades of a pedestal fan and Grace ran in to help only to be electrocuted to death on the spot. Mary passed away at the age of 90 in 1977 a year after she received Padma Shree. “Doctor Mumma as we called her was so sad in her old age. She was the kindest person I ever met. She was my mentor and also the person who funded my education” said Dr Verghese Cherian, her nephew. Aley, who was in her nineties died this February at an old age home in Aluva. Due to the pandemic none of her children who were abroad could come even for her funeral. “It was so sad. There was not even a proper funeral” said Dr Mareena, Dr Verghese’s daughter.


Dr Mary’s life and achievements were emblematic of the advancement of not just Travancore women in general but of Kerala’s Syrian Christian women, particularly. Not many communities in history could be as proud of their women’s achievements as this tiny community. Look at the amazing firsts made by the community’s women besides Dr. Lukose. The country’s first woman IAS officer (Anne Malhotra), first physicist and meteorologist (Anna Mani), first woman high court judge (Anna Chandy), first Chief engineer (PK Thresia). Kerala’s first woman parliamentarian, Anne Macarene too was a Christian but not a Syrian but a Latin Catholic. The community provided the largest number of nurses and nuns who have excelled all over the world.

The Syrian Christian community’s awesome record owes to many factors; the support from British officials; progress in fields like education, agriculture, trade, etc; encouragement from the community and also the church to embrace modernity including western education, medicine, etc; willingness to send women for education and jobs, etc. These helped the community become one of the most literate and wealthy communities in the regions of Travancore and Kochi where they had a sizable presence from the 19th century. The absence of Hindu caste pollution within the community or the Muslim antipathy towards modernity had also helped the Christians march ahead. Nevertheless, the Syrian Christian progressiveness did not extend to “lower sections” of the community. They were no less casteist and hostile than the upper caste Hindus were towards lower castes. Converted Christians from lower castes were relegated to inferior status and upper caste Christians like Muslims and Hindus were in the forefront to preserve and benefit from the slavery of the backward castes.

Today the community and the Church appear to have lost some of their moorings and self-confidence. Their own economic and demographic decline coupled with Muslims’ progress -demographic, economic, educational- have now alarmed them. Slipping into sectarianism and conservatism, they pick quarrels with others and exhort their own families to have more children to avoid the fate of Parsis. The community has to guard against attempts to exacerbate their fears from within or without. Yet, a pluralist society like Kerala can neither rubbish nor ignore one community’s fears completely, how much exaggerated or manufactured they may be.

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