Dr. Ida Scudder

Dr. Ida Scudder

The most renowned medical missionary family was the Scudders who served for generations in India and elsewhere. In 1819 John Scudder left his growing practice in New York City and sailed for Ceylon with his wife and child. They served for thirty-six years in Ceylon and India, and during that time thirteen more children were born. Of the nine who survived to adulthood, seven became missionaries, most of them specializing in medicine like their father. In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary  service. Among those forty-two was Ida, the daughter of John Scudder’s youngest son, also named John and also a medical missionary to India.

Ida Scudder was born in India in 1870 and grew up well-acquainted with the trials of missionary life, particularly the pain of separation from loved ones. When she was a youth, her family returned to America for furlough, after which her father sailed to India alone. Two years later her mother joined him, leaving her daughter with relatives in Chicago. It was a traumatic time according to her biographer:

The memory of that night could still bring a stabbing pain. The rain outside had been as wild as her own fourteen-year-old helpless grief. She had not even been allowed to go to the station to see her mother off for India. When her clinging arms had been finally, regretfully, unloosed, she had rushed upstairs and sobbed all night into her mother’s empty pillow.… With the passing weeks and months the aching loneliness had never ceased, merely subsided.”[1]

After high school, she remained in the United States to attend a “young ladies’ seminary” in Northfield, Massachusetts, founded by D. L. Moody. She had no intention of joining the family tradition and becoming a missionary, but shortly after her graduation in 1890 she received an urgent cablegram informing her that her mother was seriously ill. Within weeks she was on her way to India, that “horrible country, with its heat, dust, noise, and smells.”  Her purpose was to care for her mother, and when that obligation was met she would return to America to pursue her own dreams.

Scudder’s stay in India was longer than she had planned. In addition to caring for her mother there was other urgent work to be done.  She soon found herself in sole charge of a school of sixty-eight girls. Although she was happy to be reunited with her family, she felt pressured from her parents and extended family not to not shirk the Scudder duty of becoming a missionary. But she wanted more than the toil of missionary life.  But then came the “three knocks in the night,” her “call” to medical missions—a parable that was pulling her back to India. Three different men—a Brahmin, another high-caste Hindu, and a Muslim—came to the door during the course of one night, pleading for her assist in difficult childbirths, refusing the assistance of her physician-father because custom prohibited such contact.

It was a most traumatic night for her:

            I could not sleep that night—it was too terrible. Within the very touch of my hand were three young girls dying because there was no woman to help them. I spent much of the night in anguish and prayer. I did not want to spend my life in India. My friends were begging me to return to the joyous opportunities of a young girl in America. I went to bed in the early morning after praying much for guidance. I think that was the first time I ever met God face-to-face, and all that time it seemed that He was calling me into this work. Early in the morning I heard the “tom-tom” beating in the village and it struck terror in my heart, for it was a death message. I sent our servant, and he came back saying that all of them had died during the night. Again I shut myself in my room and thought very seriously about the condition of the Indian women and after much thought and prayer, I went to my father and mother and told them that I must go home and study medicine, and come back to India to help such women.[2]

The following year she returned to America, and in the fall of 1895 she enrolled at Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Then in 1898, when Cornell Medical College opened its doors to women, she transferred there to take advantage of its higher ranking accreditation, and it was from there that she received her M.D. degree. When she returned to India she brought with her a ten-thousand-dollar check for a new hospital (given by a wealthy woman supporter) and was accompanied by Annie Hancock, a good friend who had come to work with her and conduct evangelism.

Her dream of serving her internship under the brilliant tutelage of her father was shattered when he unexpectedly died of cancer. To make matters worse, the people, desperate for medical attention, did not trust her.  But as the months passed, her practice slowly grew.  Yet, she continued to encounter superstitious practices that counteracted her best efforts. Medicine was prohibited on certain feast days, and sometimes critically ill patients were moved from place to place to escape evil spirits. On one occasion after she had finished cleaning a serious wound, she stepped aside to prepare the dressing and when she turned back she was distressed to see the girl dabbing “holy ashes” in the wound.
 Soon after she arrived in India, construction began on the hospital at Velour that she had pleaded for before leaving America. But she quickly realized that an educational facility was also necessary.  Indian women needed to be properly trained to go out among their own people in the villages.  Building a nursing school for women became her all-consuming goal. From then on, fund-raising became an important part of her ministry. While home on furlough she captivated her largely female audiences by her stories of the hopeless plight of the Indian women, and every meeting brought more money for the project.  When the nursing school opened, she was deluged with applicants, and her first graduating class and ranked high in the government exams.

 In addition to her medical courses, Scudder taught a four-year Bible course on the apostle Paul and the Pauline epistles.  But medical work consumed the vast majority of her sixteen-hour work days, though always taking time to distribute Scripture cards.  In addition to running a hospital, a medical college, and village dispensaries, she (with her mother’s help) operated a small orphanage. More than twenty homeless children were taken into the Scudder home, and frequently she brought one or more of them along on her rounds.  Her mother’s death at the age of eighty-six, was a profound loss to her. Sixty-three years earlier this tenacious woman had been denied mission-board support because of frailty. Her husband agreed to accept responsibility for her, and for a quarter of a century after he died she continued on in the work.

As Scudder’s medical work grew, vast sums of money were needed to defray expenses and update equipment. Women’s groups from four denominations were supporting the work, but still the funds were inadequate. Then in the early 1920s she received word that her work along with other Christian schools in India would be eligible for a one-million-dollar Rockefeller grant if two million dollars could be raised elsewhere. She returned to America for the grueling fund-raising campaign that netted three million dollars; a large portion of which went to build a new medical complex at Vellore.

In spite of the new facilities, Vellore Medical College could not keep pace with the new government requirements during the years following independence. A 1937 a ruling required all medical schools to be affiliated with the University of Madras. For Scudder, “it sounded the death knell for her beloved medical school.”[3]  In the midst of the Great Depression, raising the necessary funds seemed impossible. The men’s Christian medical schools were being consolidated, but there were no other women’s medical schools. For many, Including John R. Mott, a coeducational school was the logical solution, and some suggested that Vellore would be the ideal location.

Scudder enthusiastically shared the proposal with her supporters back home, only to be thrown into the most bitter controversy she had ever endured. Thousands of women had been mobilized to raise money to support medical missions for women in India, and the thought of sharing all they had worked so hard for with the men was unthinkable. Hilda Olson, a governing board member of the Vellore Medical compound, responded tersely to the proposal: “Vellore is as you say, God’s work, but I would like to add God’s work for women. Every dollar would have to be given back to the givers.”[4]

The governing board was bitterly divided on the issue, and Lucy Peabody, who had been one of Scudder’s staunchest supporters through the years, became her most caustic critic, accusing her of disloyalty to everything the board stood for. It was a depressing time for Scudder, but in the end, after years of sharp debate, the board voted to join the men, and Vellore became the site of the new coeducational  school.

During these years and following Scudder became widely recognized for her accomplishments. She was interviewed by reporters, and many stories were written about her work. The Reader’s Digest, among other magazines, gave her flattering coverage:

            This extraordinary white-haired woman has, at 72, a spring in her step, a sparkle in her eye and the skilled, strong hands of a surgeon of 45. For 18 years she had been head of the medical association in a district with a population of 2,000,000. Doctors all over India send her their most difficult gynecological cases. Women and children come just to touch her, so exalted is her reputation for healing.[5]

She retired in 1946 at the age of seventy-five and was succeeded by one of her most distinguished pupils, Dr. Hilda Lazarus. It was a graceful retirement, according to her biographer. “She who had been all her life a leader—some had called it dictator—now found it possible to be a follower.”[6] But she remained active for more than another decade. She taught her weekly Bible class (to both men and women), advised doctors on difficult cases, entertained friends and dignitaries at Hill Top, her beautiful Indian residence, and played a fast game of tennis. Although she was not what she had been at the age of sixty-five (when during a tournament she had  beaten her teenage opponent in two sets, winning every game—after the girl scornfully objected to having to play a “grannie”), she continued to play regularly, and even at the age of eighty-three, according to her biographer, “she was still serving a wicked tennis ball.”[7]

So famous had she become that when a letter addressed simply “Dr. Ida, India” arrived on the subcontinent populated by some three hundred million people, it was sent immediately to her at Vellore.

Another well-known missionary doctor who served in south-central Asia was Viggo Olsen, who is most remembered for his widely read autobiography, Daktar: Diplomat in Bangladesh. Becoming a missionary was not something he had contemplated when he began his medical training.  “I viewed Christianity and the Bible through agnostic eyes,” he writes, “feeling that modern science had outmoded much of this religious sentiment..”[8]  Following his conversion, however,” he felt “God’s call” to overseas medical missions.  But then, “Three days later came the acid test.” In the mail was a letter: “We are happy to inform you that you have been accepted for a fellowship in the department of Internal Medicine of Mayo Clinic.” But he turned down the opportunity for a higher calling.  He and his family began their ministry in East Pakistan with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) in 1962, and four years later, amid political turmoil opened Memorial Christian Hospital.  During the 1970s, when the Muslim majority fought for independence from West Pakistan, he remained at the hospital while his wife and children were evacuated.  In the midst of the ravages of war, he was able to save the hospital, and after a time of home leave, he returned to his hospital to serve the people in the new country of Bangladesh.

[1] Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Dr. Ida: The Story of Dr. Ida Scudder of Vellore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 5.
[2] Eddy, Pathfinders, 131.
[3] Wilson, Dr. Ida, 273.
[4] Wilson, Dr. Ida, 286.
[5] Wilson, Dr. Ida, 297.
[6] Wilson, Dr. Ida, 321.
[7] Wilson, Dr. Ida, 243.
[8] Viggo Olsen, Daktar: Diplomat in Bangladesh (Chicago: Moody, 1973), 32.