Muthulakshmi, born on 30th July 1886 as a daughter of a Devadasi Chandrammal married to Narayanaswamy, the principal of Maharaja’s College in Pudukkottai. Her father had been ostracised by his family for marrying a Devadasi and Muthulakshmi became closer to her maternal relatives and saw the situation first hand.
During her college years, Muthulakshmi met Sarojini Naidu and began to attend women’s meetings. She found women who shared her personal concerns and addressed them in terms of women’s rights. The two great personalities who influenced her life were Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Annie Besant. They persuaded her to devote herself to uplifting women and children. She worked for women’s emancipation at a time when women were confined in the four walls of their room.
After she became a doctor, among the first things Muthulakshmi began to fight against was the system of wet nursing, where women of the upper class got Dalit women to breast feed their babies. She fought to raise the age of marriage for girls, women’s right to property and for choice in the matter of education and career.
It was in 1893 that the Madras Hindu Reform Association sent appeals to put an end to the practice of dances performed at private and public functions in which the British officials also participated.
It was only in December 1947 that the Madras Devadasi (Prevention of Dedication) bill was passed in the Madras Legislative Assembly.
While all the debate was going on, two young girls approached Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and asked her what alternative she had for them. They were running away from being dedicated as Devadasis. She took them into her house, tried putting them in hostels and schools but no one would take them. She decided to start Avvai Home hostel and school and offered them anonymity and choice in the matter. In 1930, she founded Avvai, a home for destitute women and orphans at Besant Avenue, Adyar.
Dr Reddy was actively involved with setting up of several toilets and women’s toilets, and initiated measures to improve the medical facilities given to slum dwellers. As an MLC, she introduced a scheme of free education for girls up to class eight.
Adyar Cancer Institute
During her address at the Centenary celebration of 1935, she declared her desire to start a hospital for cancer patients. With the overwhelming support of like-minded people, the foundation stone for Adyar Cancer Institute was laid by Sakthi Hari Haran in 1952.
The hospital, which started functioning on 18 June 1954, was only the second of its kind in India. It is today a world-renowned institution offering treatment to nearly 80,000 cancer patients every year.
She also married Dr. Sundara Reddy on the demand that he promise to “always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes.”
Muthulakshmi was the
- first female student to be admitted into a men’s college,
- first woman House Surgeon in the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital,
- first woman legislator in British India,
- first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board,
- first woman Deputy President of the Legislative Council, and
- first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation Avvai Home.