It all started when I saw the Pan Asian Women’s Association (PAWA) London’s #PAWA10Give10 challenge on Instagram. PAWA is a registered charity based in London which focuses on girls’ education in Asia. As this year is PAWA’s 10th year anniversary, a challenge was put forward. We were to choose an activity around the number 10, this could be walking 10km, juggling for 10 minutes, holding a Zoom party for 10 friends, read 10 books – it was all up to you, then donating £10 to PAWA. Oh, and don’t forget to tag 10 friends! This fundraising is important even more so with the COVID-19 pandemic. In poorer countries of the world, this means no schooling, therefore no meals and no care, especially for girls.

So, what better way to celebrate girls’ education in Asia for #PAWA10Give10 Challenge than to introduce to you 10 notable, inspirational Asian women in medicine, right? And so this was what I did for 10 Wednesdays and I am glad to introduce to you more than 10 Asian women in medicine (I cheated by introducing more than one woman on some of the Wednesdays, and I am sure you won’t blame me for that!).

Tu Youyou

Photo of Tu Yoyou, Chinese scientist who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.

Tu Youyou (30th Dec 1930) is a Chinese scientist known for her discovery of one of the world’s most effective anti-malarial drugs, the artemisinin (previously known as antimalarial substance qinghaosu in Traditional Chinese Medicine). For her discoveries, she was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine1 (along with Irish-born American parasitologist William Campbell, and Japanese microbiologist, Omura Satoshi).⁣ Tu Youyou obtained her degree from the Beijing Medical College in 1955, and later trained for two years and a half in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Interestingly, she is known for her non-traditional background and was given the moniker “Three Without Scientist”. She had worked during a time where there was no postgraduate education in China and therefore she has no postgraduate degree, no research experience abroad, and not a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, Keiko Okami and Sabat M Islambouli

Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (India), Keiko Okami (Japan)  and Sabat M Islambouli (Syria), one of the first women doctors of their respective countries.

These three women were one of the first female physicians of their respective countries, who had completed the modern medical curriculum from a Western medical school, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, USA. What I especially love about this photo (taken in 1886) was their pride in donning their heritage. We should always be proud of our heritage. ⁣

Left: Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (31st Mar 1865–26th Feb 1887) was the first Indian female2 physician (along with Kadambini Ganguly who graduated in India). Originally, she was called Yamuna but was renamed to Anandi, “The Happy One” by her husband3, Gopalrao, who was 20 years her senior. Anandi was inspired to pursue medicine when her first child died after ten days4, and her husband was the biggest supporter of her pursuing medicine5. It was said that her husband was enraged when he found her cooking with her grandmother, instead of focussing on her studies; exactly the opposite reaction of the Indian society at that time upon learning that she wanted to pursue Western medicine. Anandi’s husband then decided to send her to study medicine in the US5. At one point, Gopalrao was dissatisfied with Anandi’s progress that he travelled to the US himself, but by that time she was almost finishing her degree. They both returned to India5 upon Anandi’s graduation. Anandi received a grand welcome in 1886 as she arrived in India and a congratulatory message from Queen Victoria4.

Middle: Keiko Okami, born Keiko Nishida (15th Aug 1859–2nd Sept 1941), was the first Japanese woman to obtain a medical degree from a Western university6. ⁣Kei Okami received aid from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church to study at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, US when moved to the US with her husband, an art teacher whom she met while teaching English at Sakurai Girls’ School. Upon graduation in 1889, Kei returned to Japan to work at the Jikei Hospital but resigned later supposedly because Emperor Meiji had refused her care because she was female7. Kei had an illustrious career elsewhere as a doctor in her own clinic and hospital, and also as a teacher in medicine. (NB: The first Japanese female doctor was Ginko Ogino).

Right: Sabat M Islambouli (1867–1941) was a Jewish physician from Syria and one of the first Syrian female physicians8.⁣ She graduated in 1890. Little is known about her after her graduation, unfortunately.

Salma Ismail

Salma Ismail, the first female Malay doctor in Malaysia.

Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Salma Ismail (19th Dec 1918—20th Jul 2014) was the first Malaysian Malay female doctor (therefore, one of the first Malaysian female doctors)9,10. She studied at SMK Sultanah Asma and was the first girl from Kedah to pass the Senior Cambridge exams with distinction, thus winning a scholarship to pursue her medical studies at King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore in 193610. Her medical education was disrupted due to the Japanese invasion (WWII) but she resumed and completed her studies in 1947. Following graduation in 1947, Salma worked as a trainee doctor at Hospital Besar Kuala Lumpur, then became a house officer in Kedah and Selangor before opening her own practice in Kampung Bharu. Salma was married to Datuk Abu Bakar Ibrahim, a former director of the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, and was blessed with four children. She was awarded several Kedah state awards for her work in medicine and community10.

Rufaida Al-Aslamiya

Rufaida Al-Aslamiya (Aslamiya, reflecting her tribe) or Rufaida binti Saad (daughter of Saad) (~620 AD–?) was recognised as the first female Muslim nurse and surgeon11 (talk about a surgeon with the skills of a caring nurse!). Her skills in nursing and surgery grew in prominence among Arab women at that time that she had also taught the famous companions of Prophet Muhammad – Khadijah, then Aishah. In addition to her clinical skills, she helped to solve social issues related to the disease, demonstrating a great understanding of patient-centredness and “whole-person care”. She was also a charitable individual; helping the disadvantaged especially children and orphans.

These trailblazing Asian female doctors are not only passionate about the art of medicine, they are the movers and shakers of society. Click To Tweet

Serena Nik-Zainal

Serena Nik-Zainal, joint winner of the 2019 Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize.

Serena Nik-Zainal is a Malaysian-born clinician-scientist at the University of Cambridge, who was awarded the 2019 Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize (along with her colleagues, Dr Paul Calleja and Dr Ignacio Medina from University of Cambridge)12, for her work in cancer genetics using bioinformatics which enables new approaches to targeted therapies. ⁣

Chiaki Mukai

Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in space, first Japanese citizen to have two space flights and possibly the first Asian female doctor to be in space.

Chiaki Mukai (6th May 1952) is a Japanese physician and JAXA astronaut13. She was the first Japanese woman in space and was the first Japanese citizen to have two spaceflights. Both were Space Shuttle missions; her first was STS-65 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in July 1994, which was a Spacelab mission. ⁣Chiaki has a long illustrious career in medicine prior to being an astronaut and was awarded with many honours. Her most recent awards are the Legion of Honour: Cavelier by the French Government (2015), Dream’s Award – The Soroptimist Japan Foundation (2013), and the Joe Kerwin Award by the Aerospace Medical Association (2013)14.

Jemilah Mahmood

Jemilah Mahmood, founder of Mercy Malaysia and current Under Secretary General for Partnerships of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood is a Malaysian doctor. She is most well-known for being the founder of Mercy Malaysia and the current Under-Secretary-General for Partnerships of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)15. Prior to IFRC, Jemilah was the Chief of the World Humanitarian Summit at the UN, New York. ⁣⁣⁣As a doctor, she was trained in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and is a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gyanaecologists. Her accolades include the Isa Award for Service to Humanity (2013)16, Merdeka Award 201517 (the Malaysian Nobel prize), and the 2019 ASEAN Prize18. ⁣⁣⁣She was recently appointed as a Special Advisor19 for health initiatives to the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Jemilah is married to Dr Asfar Abdullah and has two sons15.

Adeeba Kamarulzaman

Adeeba Kamarulzaman, the first Asian to head the International AIDS Society.

Professor Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman is a Malaysian doctor, an adjunct associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine, Dean of Universiti Malaya Faculty of Medicine20, and is the first Asian to head the International AIDS Society21. She is also credited for the establishment of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre20.

Yoshioka Yayoi

Yoshioka Yayoi, Japanese physician, women rights' activist and founder of the Tokyo Women's Medical University, the first medical school for women in Japan.

Yoshioka Yayoi (29th Apr 1871-22nd May 1959) was a Japanese physician and women’s rights activist. She founded the Tokyo Women’s Medical University in 1900, the first medical school for women in Japan22. S⁣he grew up in a time when women’s education was frowned up. It was only until 1912, that women in Japan were allowed to practise medicine. Ahead of her time, she advocated sex education23 along with her female compatriots. ⁣For her work in youth associations and in promoting education for women, she was awarded the Order of the Precious Crown (1955) and Order of the Sacred Treasure (posthumously, 1959).⁣⁣

Honoria Acosta Sison

Honoria Acosta Sison, first Filipino female doctor.

Honoria Acosta Sison (30th Dec 1888-19th Jan 1970) was the first Filipino female doctor when she graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 190924. She first worked as an assistant in obstetrics at the Philippine General Hospital of Manila, then was a first assistant in obstetrics in St. Paul’s Hospital in Manila, before becoming a faculty member at the University of Philippines in 1914. By 1940 she was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and head of the department of obstetrics of the University of Phillippines. Internationally, she was renowned for her work on trophoblastic diseases and pre-eclampsia25⁣.

Marie Thomas

Marie Thomas, first female doctor in Indonesia and the first Indonesian specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology.

Marie Thomas (17th Feb 1896-10th October 1966) was the first female doctor in Indonesia and the first Indonesian specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology26, when she graduated from tot Opleiding van Indische Artsen School (STOVIA). She was also recognised as the first female graduate of STOVIA27. She was the founder of the first midwifery school in Sumatra, and second midwifery school in Indonesia, situated at Bukittinggi.⁣ Marie was one of the first Indonesian doctors to advocate the usage of birth control and intrauterine devices.

Margaret Lin Xavier

Margaret Lin Xavier, first female doctor in Thailand.

Margaret Lin Xavier or Khun Ying Srivisanvaja (29th May 1898-6th Dec 1932) was the first female doctor in Thailand28,29 when she obtained a medical degree from the London School of Medicine for Women. At 26, upon her father’s death, she moved back to Thailand to work as an obstetrician at the Thai Red Cross, Chulalongkorn Hospital until her premature death from encephalitis due in influenza at 3428,29. Her impact on Thai medicine in her short life was immense. She devoted her medical life to everyone28,29, including those who could not afford medical care and sex workers. Prior to her early death, she had delivered Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara (Queen Sirikit, the queen consort of King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX)29. She was celebrated in a Google doodle on her 122nd birthday this year28,29.

I hope you enjoyed my list of inspirational Asian female doctors. It has been fun doing this challenge! This is, of course, a non-exhaustive list, so please let me know your favourite Asian female doctors and don’t forget to donate to PAWA London because girls’ education matters.

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  1. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  2. Who is Anandi Gopal Joshi?. The Indian Express. Published 2018. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  3. StreeShakti – The Parallel Force. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  4. Falcone, A. Remembering the Pioneering Women From One of Drexel’s Legacy Medical Colleges – DrexelNow. DrexelNow. Published 2017. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  5. Naskar, D. Some Women of Inspiration: A Glance on Women Empowerment & Development in India. Global Journal of Human-Social Science D History, Archaeology & Anthropology. 14 (5): 51. Published 2014.
  6. Hamish, Ion. American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan, 1859-73. UBC Press; 2010. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-7748-5899-1.
  7. The Graduates. The Triangle. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  8. Rao, M. HuffPost. Published 2017. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  9. Salma Ismail, first Malay woman doctor, dies at 95. The Star Online. Published 2014. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  10. Rashid F. Biography Of The Early Malay Doctors 1900-1957. Xlibris; 2012.
  11. Miller-Rosser K, Chapman Y, Francis K. Historical, cultural, and contemporary influences on the status of women in nursing in Saudi Arabia. Online J Issues Nurs. 2006;11(3):8. Published 2006 Jul 19.
  12. Cambridge-based Malaysian wins ‘Nobel Prize for Cancer Research’. TODAY Online. Published 2019. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  13. JAXA Astronauts – International Space Station – JAXA. Published 2016. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  14. 2013 Award Winners of the Aerospace Medical Association. Aviat Space Environ Med. 2013;84(7):763.
  15. Jemilah Mahmood – IFRC. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  16. Dr Jemilah Mahmood Wins Isa Award For Services To Humanity – Isa Award. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  17. The Merdeka Award – Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  18. Dr Jemilah Mahmood is 2019 Asean Prize recipient | New Straits Times. NST Online. Published 2019. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  19. Dr Jemilah Mahmood dilantik Penasihat Khas PM. Sinarharian. Published 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  21. UM’s Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman appointed president of International AIDS Society. The Star Online. Published 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  22. Parker S. Kill Or Cure: An Illustrated History Of Medicine. DK Publishing; 2013.
  23. Frühstück S. Colonizing Sex in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2003.
  24. Ogilvie M, Harvey J. The Biographical Dictionary Of Women In Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times To The Mid-20Th Century. New York: Routledge; 2003.
  25. Aragon G. The Road I Travelled. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press; 2005.
  26. Aryono. Dokter Perempuan Pertama Indonesia. Historia – Majalah Sejarah Populer Pertama di Indonesia. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  27. Hesselink, L. Healers on the Colonial Market: Native Doctors and Midwives in the Dutch East Indies. Brill, 2011. JSTOR, Accessed July 29, 2020.
  28. Maneechote, P. Google Thailand celebrates Siam’s first ever female doctor – Thai Enquirer. Thai Enquirer. Published 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020.
  29. Celebrating Margaret Lin Xavier (Lin Srivisarnvaja). Published 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020.

About the Author: Hannah Nazri

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3 thoughts on “Inspirational Asian Women in Medicine: A Non-Exhaustive List

  1. Thank you so much for this list! As an author of the German Wikipedia I used your footnotes to dig up information on these incredible women. They enabled me to provide Marie Thomas, Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Honoria Acosta-Sison, Jemilah Mahmood and Salma Ismail with articles on the German Wikipedia. My next projects are Margaret Lin Xavier and Serena Nik-Zainal. Thanks again for drawing attention to these inspirational ladies!

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