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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

Dr. Ida Sophia Scudder – Medical Missionary

These are the words Dr. Ida Scudder, spoke to her first batch of graduating doctors in 1922, “You will not only be curing diseases, but will also be battling with epidemics, plagues and pestilences and preventing them. Face trials with a smile, with head erect and a calm exterior. If you are fighting for the right and for a true principle, be calm and sure and keep on until you win. ​”

After watching three women die in childbirth Ida Scudder realized that she wanted to carry on the work of a medical missionary, like her parents and grandparents had done. She was a third-generation medical missionary from America. Dr. Scudder was born to a family which was embedded richly in the history of medical missionary service. As a child growing up in India, she witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of famine, poverty, and disease.

Ida Scudder was born in Ranipet, India, to a missionary family. Her grandparents on her father's side was the first the medical missionary family in India. Following tradition, her father John completed medical training and then set up a mission in Vellore, India, with his wife, Vermont-born Sophia Weld. The couple had six children, of which Ida was the youngest and the only daughter. In 1878, following a cholera epidemic and a severe famine, the couple decided to go to the United States for a short time. When they returned to India a few years later, they left 13-year old Ida behind under the stern guardianship of an aunt and uncle to complete her education.

In 1887 when they also left to become missionaries in Asia, Ida Scudder confessed in her diary to feelings of loneliness and abandonment. At Northfield Seminary, in Massachusetts, she spent a few years in school, but was forced to withdraw in 1890 without graduating in order to return to India and care for her sick mother. Firmly set against a missionary life, Scudder planned to leave India as soon as possible. After watching three women die in childbirth, she changed her mind, realizing that she wanted to carry on the work of a medical missionary.

The death of this 3 women affected Scudder quite a lot that it was almost like a calling from God for her to leave America where she studied at the Weill Cornell Medical College in 1899 and come to India to commit herself to providing Indian women with medical education and care. She went on to do just that, in a career spanning five decades.

Dr. Scudder returned to India in 1900 to begin her work. With a small gift of $10,000 from a man who wanted to memorialize his deceased wife, she immediately opened a one-bed clinic giving medical assistance to local women who had no other place to go for health care.

By 1902, the 40-bed Mary Taber Schell Memorial Hospital opened, as per Ida’s vision – that women should have the same access to quality and compassionate healthcare that men did, regardless of religion or the ability to pay for it.

Dr. Scudder went on to open a medical school for women, which despite male skepticism, received over 150 applications in its first year in 1918. At first, the Reformed Church in America was the main backer of the Vellore school, and after Dr. Scudder agreed to make it coeducational, it eventually gained the support of 40 additional missions.

For the next 22 years, she remained the hospital's only surgeon. Travelling by train, carriage, or pony cart, she also established a roadside dispensary service to treat patients who could not make the trip to Vellore, as well as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Eventually, her weekly trips to the countryside developed into a system of roadside clinics offering public health services and education to people in remote locations.

Convinced of the need to train Indian women to provide medical treatment to other women, Dr. Scudder began a program at her hospital to instruct women nurses, which expanded into a nursing school by 1909. Her next ambition was to open a medical school to train physicians. This was no easy matter. She had to raise funds in Britain and the United States, promote interdenominational support for the project among religious and missionary groups, and convince the local Indian government to provide subsidies.

With the help of her close friend Gertrude Dodd, who provided funds from her inheritance, Dr. Scudder managed to achieve her goal, and the Union Mission Medical School for Women opened in 1918. Making regular trips abroad to raise funds and support for the school, she continued as its surgeon, instructor and administrator. The school faced a crisis in 1938, when the Chennai (Madras) government passed a law that medical degrees could only be granted by universities, but instead of closing the school, Dr. Scudder lobbied her supporters. By 1950, the school had become affiliated with the University of Madras. Dr. Scudder retired shortly thereafter, having seen her school grow from a small institution to one that supported a large staff and trained hundreds of women nurses and physicians.

Throughout her career, Dr. Scudder's work made her to be renown, in addition to numerous awards. She died in 1960 at her bungalow home in India, where she had spent her life helping to improve medical education.

That tiny clinic which she started many years ago has now grown into the Christian Medical College, Vellore – one of India’s most prestigious private hospitals and medical schools. Today, CMC cares for over two million patients and trains one thousand doctors, nurses and other medical professionals each year.


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