CMC Vellore (or to use its full name, Christian Medical College Vellore) is a legendary medical college – probably second only to AIIMS in the league table of India’s top medical schools – where some of India’s finest doctors practice. Living in this era of resurgent nationalism, we were stunned to learn from this fine article in Scroll that the founder of CMC Vellore was an American lady named Ida Scudder. Anu Kumar’s article says, “Ida Sophia Scudder was born on December 9, 1870, in Ranipet, Tamil Nadu, where her parents, John and Sophia, were missionaries. When she was eight, Scudder returned with her parents and five elder brothers to the US, spending time in Nebraska and Chicago, before moving to the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in Massachusetts.”

In 1890, when the 20 year old Scudder was visiting India to care for her ailing mother, an incident took place in Trivandrum which changed the course of her life: “Sometime in 1890, a late-night knock on her door in Tindivanam in present-day Tamil Nadu woke her up. There was a man standing outside, begging for help for his 14-year-old wife, who was about to give birth. Scudder told him she was no doctor, her father was. The man’s face turned stony: tradition didn’t allow his wife to be examined by a male doctor.

That same night, two other men came by Scudder’s house seeking medical attention for young women. Both went away on hearing her reply. The next morning, Scudder learned to her distress that all three women had died.

The experience shook her profoundly. It was in that moment she decided to study medicine to help out Indian women who had little access to healthcare, especially its child brides and women living in the seclusion of zenanas.”

So, Ms Scudder went back to USA, studied medicine and returned to India to create history: “In 1900, after studying medicine at Philadelphia’s Women’s Medical College and then Cornell Medical College – where she was among the first few female students – Scudder returned to India. From then on, the only times she ever went to the United States was to raise funds for her work.

Within months of her arrival with her loyal friend Annie Hancock, Scudder’s father John died of cancer. Forging on despite the tragedy, she began her practice from the family home in Vellore, a town of 40,000 people, 135 km west of Chennai…”

That’s not all – more American involvement was to come: “Scudder’s vision for a hospital was based on a concept first proposed by Canadian missionary Louisa Hart. A generous $10,000 donation from a New York banker made the vision a reality and so was born the Mary Taber Schell Memorial Hospital in 1902…”

The enterprising American in Scudder meant that she soon created a mobile hospital: “In 1906, she started organising medical camps called “roadsides” in villages around Vellore. Once a week, she would travel to a distant camp by train, bullock cart and, later on, a ramshackle Peugeot. A driver accompanied her in the car, along with a “Bible lady” and a team of assistants. Behind the car would follow a bullock cart – later an ambulance – in case serious patients needed to be shifted to the hospital.

Such was the popularity of these camps that people travelled long distances and waited for hours to see Scudder.”

By this time, Scudder was thinking about building a big institution and American capital and Indian talent was ready and willing to support her: “She envisioned a bigger hospital, a nursing school, and in 1918, a medical school for women… Setting up a world-class medical school needed both funds and organisational skills and Scudder proved an able administrator and institution builder. With her persuasive eloquence, she converted many to her cause. Gertrude Todd, a generous donor and daughter of a prominent New York contractor, joined the mission in 1916 and helped with the finances. Delia Houghton joined in 1909 to begin the nursing training programme.

In 1918, when Scudder proposed setting up the Union Mission Medical School for Women, she was greeted with incredulity. Colonel Bryson, the British surgeon general in Madras Presidency, doubted she would get even three students. That first year, she got 150 applications, of which 18 were chosen. Bryson was forced to eat his words when most women students passed the final examination and secured a Licence of Medical Practitioner diploma.”

There was one more step in the journey which resulted in the Union Mission Medical School for Women becoming the institution that we know today as CMC Vellore: “In 1938, the British government changed its policy, announcing that, going forward, it would recognise only a university-issued degree in medicine and surgery – that is, an MBBS. This created great consternation. Missionary funding organisations were torn. But after considerable turmoil, Scudder’s school was upgraded to a medical college – the Christian Medical College. In 1945, it became co-educational.”

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