Vaccine Godmother of India

Ambica Gulati

Dr Gagandeep Kang Vaccine Godmother of India


Financial strain on the family did not end with the job. Her father was the eldest and there were six siblings; the youngest with a 22-year gap. “My father helped with the household finances and also the education of his siblings, until his younger brother could help out. In 1961, my parents entered into an arranged marriage. As my father was in a transferable job, for my birth my mother went to her maternal home in Shimla. And I was born in the Lady Reading Hospital on November 3 1962.” With an uncle studying agriculture, little wonder that Dr Kang was fondly called Cherry while her sister was named Peach! Later, they had another cousin – Cheeku! “Within the family, we are still addressed by these names,” she says. 

Shortly after her birth, her father was sent for training to the US as the Indian Railways began the transition from steam to diesel locomotives. “My father became the first manager of the Diesel Locomotive Works in Benaras. My sister, Bhavdeep, was born in Benaras in 1965.” 

In 1969, her father was sent to the UK for his Master’s degree. As her mother accompanied her father for six months, the girls were left with their grandparents in Ludhiana. “We had never lived in Punjab before. My grandparents had an open house. We were just two of the many children who lived there. My grandmother wasn’t highly educated, but she wanted the next generation to study. So, even the children of relatives, who had come from the villages around, would live there and continue their studies.” Her cousins lived in a rented house in Civil Lines, Ludhiana, with just one hall, one bathroom and a kitchen. But it was a place filled with warmth, and much love. 

“My grandfather needed additional income beyond his pension and so he became a ‘valuer’ post retirement; he would be called to give an estimate of the value of land. To do this, he had to travel all over Punjab and would walk to most places; sometimes take a bus, as rickshaw was a luxury that he couldn’t afford. I think my grandparents finally owned property in their 70s, living a major part of their life in rented accommodation.” 

That indomitable spirit is Dr Kang’s inheritance. 

“By that time, my parents came back from the UK; along with my sister I was a free bird with little learning! My father was stationed in Jamalpur, Bihar, and when we shifted schools our poor performance led to my mother supervising us more intensely. He also began teaching us again,” she smiles.  

Dr Kang’s mother taught English and history. “Out of the 10 schools I studied in pan-India, my mother was a teacher in seven! We would all go to school together, by rickshaw, bus, train and even a country boat. It’s nice to have a mother as a teacher in the same school, as long as she is not taking your class,” she quips. 

With parents determined to uphold principles, she did have some difficult moments. “My mother would ask her colleagues to check my examination paper in history and then deduct 10 marks from that result.” 

Constant transfers and disruptions didn’t trouble her and Bhavdeep. “I always started at the bottom of the class, as moving across states and mediums meant I always had to learn new things. And by the time I reached the top, it was time to move again.”

Looking back, she shares, “It’s amazing what a difference a good school teacher can make as your mind just opens up. You find learning easy. I studied in small schools in the back of beyond, so I realise the value of a good teacher.” 



Even with the trials, transfers and other disruptions, there was a lot of learning with parents being avid learners themselves. She recounts with a smile how her father, sister Bhavdeep and she went for French classes together. “He was a lifelong learner. He learnt to play the sitar at the age of 30. He also became a middle-distance runner.” 

Growing up, her sister opted for a career in journalism, but for her choosing to study science was a natural outcome. “My entire family boasts of science professionals. My grandfather was an executive engineer, my father was a mechanical engineer, my uncle studied medicine and my aunt is a clinical psychologist, so I like history, geography, mathematics, chemistry and biology.” 

Dr Kang indulged in scientific experiments frequently at home during her childhood. She even built a lab with her father at home when she was 12! “When we moved to a new place and I had to catch up with the rest of the class, my father and I would work out what lessons had been completed. For the practical classes, we used our own laboratory. But when chemicals are available, experimentation happens and occasional disasters occur, such as explosions,” she quips. 

After a medical entrance exam, Dr Kang got admission to the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore. CMC was new turf and it became a fresh beginning. The teachers were definitely better than those in her schooling days because they were practitioners as well. “During my school days, I was always the new student. But in college, we were all new and everyone had done well in their exams. So, there was competition but was camaraderie as well. I was very serious in the first semester and did very well. Each batch had 60 students, with a separate hostel for girls and boys. It was a small community, so we spent a lot of time together in class as well as outside.” 

That was the time they got a television set in the hostel too, so the group hung out a lot together. “We had intense teenage conversations all night. And friendships have lasted since then. We recently had a class reunion at Mahabalipuram; three joyful days with more than half our class coming back from around the world.”  

Dr Kang completed her Bachelor in Medicine, Bachelor in Surgery (MBBS) in 1987.  “After completing MBBS, I thought about becoming a psychiatrist. While I was deciding what to do, my parents asked me to come to Delhi. They were anxious, as I had a boyfriend and he was Christian. They persuaded me to meet some Punjabi boys, but to no avail.”  

Dr Kang next appeared in the postgraduate entrance exam successfully and went back to CMC for a course in microbiology. She completed her Doctor of Medicine (MD) in 1991.

Along with this, in 1989 she also got permission to marry Mathew Joseph, who is a neurosurgeon at CMC. “We registered our marriage; got a blessing in Bangalore and then hosted an Anand Karaj in Delhi.” Dr Kang’s father-in-law was a surgeon who was working in Bangalore. After a heart attack, he went onto live with his parents in Kerala. Her mother-in-law was the principal of Bishop Cotton School in Shimla and taught there till her retirement. Her sons, Arjun and Tej, are both working now.  

Tej Kang Joseph (son), Mathew Joseph (son), Arjun Kang Joseph (son), Gagandeep Tej Kang Joseph (son), Mathew Joseph (son), Arjun Kang Joseph (son), Gagandeep

Ambica Gulati
Armed with an experience of two decades in journalism, Ambica Gulati is a storyteller. She loves meeting people, exploring places and is turning into a photo geek. She has been part of an eminent coffee table book 100 Legal Luminaries of India, worked in magazines (Life Positive, Swagat, Outlook Traveller), written on food, culture wellness and more, and is bored when stationed in one place for too long. Follow her on