Ida Scudder: The American Who Changed the Face of Indian Healthcare

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Ida Scudder never wanted to live in India. Coming from generations of medical missionaries, she had visited her father while he was working in India and made up her mind that the ‘dusty, impoverished landscape’ at the time was not for her. She wanted to study in America, get married, and settle down into a comfortable lifestyle.

But one fateful night in India in the year 1890 changed the course of her life forever.

As the story goes, Scudder was visited by three men in succession, all desperately seeking help for their wives, who were dying in childbirth. The men all asked Ida to help them, but when she clarified that she was not a doctor, and offered her father’s help, the men claimed that they could not allow another man to treat their wives. And so, all three women died in childbirth due to social and religious restrictions. **

This troubled Ida Scudder deeply. In her own words –

“Here… 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, and somehow I felt I could not give that up…

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, who had come up early, to the village to find out the fate of these three women, 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.”

And that’s exactly what she did. After completing her medical education in America, Scudder scraped up enough funds to come back to India and start her own medical school just for women, amidst a lot of scepticism from both America and India. In India, officials claimed that she should consider herself lucky if even one of her students passed their exams. As it turned out, 80% of the men who took said exams failed, and every single one of Scudder’s students passed.

As she treated more and more patients, Scudder’s fame spread and many people came to her for their healthcare needs. She eventually allowed men to enrol as students as well. She set up a teaching hospital, strongly founded on her Christian principles, as well as a medical college that was later visited by Gandhi himself.

Ida Scudder and Gandhi
Ida Scudder and Gandhi

As Scudder’s legacy grew, her faith and entrepreneurial sprit remained strong. With her tireless work and unwavering belief, she single-handedly changed the face of healthcare in India.

Over a hundred years later, the hospital and medical college she created and named the Christian Medical College and Hospital (CMC), in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, is now one of the best hospitals in the country.

 

** To see human lives needlessly sacrificed for the sake of societal/religious norms breaks my heart, especially because even over a hundred years later, it still happens.

 

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