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An Indian 'Nightingale'

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The Nightingale Initiative for Global Health features the pioneering work of Asoka Roy, first Indian editor of the Nursing Journal of India and pioneer of midwifery education in the USA.

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Asoka Roy: "I consider that the woman delivers the baby,
not a midwife or obstetrician."

Asoka Roy was a pioneer nurse-midwife who established this field as a profession in the United States.

She began her midwifery career in India, the country of her birth. One of eleven children, Ms. Roy was born on December 10, 1915, the daughter of a high-ranking civil servant.

Though she could have lived a leisurely life, not needing to work to support herself, she decided, instead, to become a midwife. After learning about deficiencies in maternity care in India, she realized how much mothers, babies and nurse-midwives of India needed her commitment to them. From this initial decision, Ms. Roy found that she truly loved her midwifery profession. With great energy, she devoted her entire life to the care of mothers and babies, considering each mother-to-be as a sacred individual on a nine-month journey to deliver a miracle.

Visiting war-torn villages

Her first job was in a hospital in New Delhi and she later became fully trained in midwifery, earning her master’s degree at the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health in Calcutta. During the partition between India and Pakistan, she made several trips to the war-torn villages. During this period, stories are told of her courage when she risked her life to see all her midwives to safety and of her trips to the villages to deliver babies — such as twins in the mud-huts of war-torn India — when medical assistance was nowhere to be found.

After the partition, Asoka Roy broke new ground for the cause of Indian nursing, as General Secretary of the Trained Nurses’ Association of India, or TNAI. She was only the second Indian to hold this high-level 'British' national post and the first Indian Editor of the TNAI’s Nursing Journal of India.

Then, through her association with TNAI, she traveled to London to earn a midwife’s teaching certificate at the Royal College of Midwives. Before she immigrated to the United States, she was a midwifery tutor in Britain. Ms. Roy always welcomed technology as a valuable complement to the traditional skills she practiced and traveled, also, to Sweden to learn the vacuum-extraction method of delivery.

Trained midwives

Just at a time when American women were beginning to seek midwifery services, Ms. Roy earned her nurse-midwife license in New York in 1967. In 1968, she became the first director of Beth Israel Medical Center's midwifery program, which was one of the first of its kind.  Ms. Roy also taught midwifery students and medical students at the prestigious Yale University. While there, she drafted the curriculum of a course to train foreign midwives for practice in the United States.  In 1983, she obtained midwifery-admitting privileges at St. Vincent’s’ Hospital and, when she retired from delivery practice in 1990, the hospital named her “Midwife Emeritus.” During this time, she became a Fellow of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

Active after her retirement, Ms. Roy attended her last birth, her grand-niece's, at home, at age 82 in 1998. Until nearly the end of her life, she was involved in developing the Beth Israel midwifery archives.

Throughout her career, Ms. Roy delivered more than 5,500 babies. In a 1983 article in The New York Times, Ms. Roy explained her approach this way: "I consider that the woman delivers the baby, not a midwife or obstetrician."

Koko Roy Award

Affectionately called ‘Koko” by her friends and family, she died on June 22, 2001 at the age of 85. In her memory, “Koko Roy Award” has been instituted to recognize an individual’s contribution to women’s health. Her story is an inspiration to all Indian nurses and to the global nursing and midwifery community.

Ms. Asoka Roy was one of those fortunate women of pre-independent India, who had access to the highest education and a life of wealth and privilege. Yet, she used her education to devote her life to the care of mothers and babies and toward the improving her profession and inspiring her students and colleagues.

Her New York Times Obituary closes with these words: “Her departure represents a great loss to the international midwifery community. Her spirit will live on for many generations.”

NIGH thanks Kamakshi Choudhry, Jennifer Chiu and Ms. Roy’s sister, Dr. Iona Dipti Sisodia and brothers, Drs. Rustum and Prodipto Roy — for their contributions to this article.

Powerpoint Presentation

Through NIGH's networks in India, a Powerpoint presentation introducing the Nightingale Declaration Campaign was created to honour  Asoka Roy and circulated across India.

  Download the PPT presentation (file 14.3MB download speeds vary)

The planning group that initiated this effort:

The group that contributed to circulating this campaign across India:

To Contact NIGH in India:

Ms. Phalakshi V. Manjrekar, M.Sc. N.
Director - Nursing
P.D. Hinduja National Hospital & MRC
Veer Savarkar Marg
Mahim, Mumbai, 400 016 • INDIA
Contact tel:  022-24447402

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In 2008 & 2009, Asoka Roy’s family created a Platinum Sponsorship of the Nightingale Declaration Campaign to honor the memory of their sister — a pioneering nurse & midwife in both India & the United States. Projects developed from this contribution included an India-wide outreach of the Nightingale Declaration dedicated to Asoka’s memory.
See: An Indian Nightingale
Generous Support of Drs. Rustum & Della Roy