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An Extraordinary Physician: Ida Scudder

Ida Scudder is a fascinating – and challenging – example of the question I looked at in my last post. Does a missionary call come suddenly out of the blue, or is it the conclusion of a long slow process – or is it both?

Ida was born in India into a truly amazing family. In 1959 it was said of the Scudder family that ‘forty-two members through four generations had given a total of 1,100 years to missionary service in India’. Yet J John comments that “amongst that remarkable lineage, the most striking figure is Ida Scudder.”

It did not start that way for Ida. “Born in 1870 to John Scudder Jnr, who served in South India. Ida grew up exposed to sickness, poverty and famine, and utterly hated it.” The India she grew up in was poor and deprived, and the last thing Ida wanted was to serve there as a missionary. “Aged eight, Ida went to the United States for schooling where, enjoying comfort and security and anticipating marriage and motherhood, she rejected all thought of missionary life.” Ida ran away from any call to India and embraced the comfort of the USA, set in her plan to live and die there.

But… God broke through and called her. “Returning to India in 1890 to visit her ailing mother, she had a life-changing experience. One night, three men from very different communities arrived separately, seeking medical help for their pregnant wives who were seriously ill. They left when told by Ida that the only doctor was her father, as their cultures did not allow a man to treat a woman. The next morning Ida learned that all three women and their babies had died. Shaken, she prayerfully decided to become a doctor in order to help the women of India.”

The very poverty and need that Ida had rejected and run away from broke her heart. She responded to God’s call. “Ida returned to the United States and underwent medical training, graduating in 1899 as one of the very first female doctors. She returned to India.”

But… “expecting to work alongside her father, his death soon left her on her own.” Facing the personal loss of her father and the collapse of her plans, she did not return to the safety of the USA but reacted in exactly the opposite way. She had been called now, and she stepped into her call and began a truly amazing missionary career of love and service to the Indian people. “She opened a small clinic for women at Vellore, seventy-five miles from Madras, and there, in 1902, built a forty-bed hospital for women using funds given to her in the States. At the same time, she created roadside clinics in rural villages where she could treat people and give health education.”

“Rather than self-destruct trying to save India on her own, she developed a remarkably effective way of multiplying who and what she was doing through training and education.” She began “to train local women as nurses. Despite widespread scepticism, her nursing programme proved a great success, and by 1906 an enlarged hospital was treating 40,000 patients annually.”

By 1918 the Medical College was training doctors as well as nurses. “Increasingly recognised as one of the leading medical institutions in all India, the Vellore hospital began offering medical degree courses in 1942. In a break with tradition, the various training programmes became open not just to women, but men.”

Ida finally retired in 1946, but she continued to be involved with the work until her death in 1960 at the age of eighty-nine, fundraising from the USA.

This woman who had run away from India’s poverty in her youth “was not only respected but also loved. Patients and colleagues admired her servant heart, and, although she never married, she had a wide circle of close friends. She was particularly admired for her commitment to service and made no secret that this came from her Christian faith. The motto that the Christian Medical Centre took of the words of Jesus in Mark 10:45 – ‘I have come not to be served, but to serve’ – was most definitely hers.”

Ida passed the ultimate missionary test – “Ida’s work has outlived her. The Christian Medical College in Vellore continues and is regularly ranked in the top two medical colleges in India. Unlike many institutions founded by missionaries, it has not lost its basis of faith and continues to be openly Christian.”

J John observes what an amazing missionary she was: “She began as a doctor when India was a British colony under Queen Victoria and was still working when India had become an independent nation. She saw science, technology and clinical practice change almost beyond recognition. Yet through obstacles and change, failures and successes, joys and sorrows, Ida simply pressed on doing what God had called her to do.”

What God had called her to do! However that call comes, what a difference it will make to a dying world!

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