A Life of Consecrated Purpose: The Ministry of Dr. Ida Scudder

portait of a woman in India

Editor’s Note: Lottie Moon gets a lot of press here at imb.org, and rightfully so. Her legacy lives on as the impetus for generations of missionary engagement among peoples and places around the world. She, however, is far from the only woman whose influence has cast a long shadow on the world of missions. This week, as we look toward Mother’s Day, we’d like to celebrate the lives and work of a few spiritual mothers that have deeply impacted many in the work of missions.

Ida Scudder was visiting her parents one evening in 1894 in the town of Vellore, India, when three men came to the door of their bungalow. Each man was seeking help for his wife who was in labor and in trouble. But when each found that the doctor was a man—Ida’s father—he refused help and went away. The next day there were three funerals in the town.

God spoke clearly to Ida through this experience. She felt called by God to become a doctor and relieve the suffering of Indian women.

I was a young teenager when I read the book, Dr. Ida, by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. Certainly, then I did not know that I would spend my life as a doctor in South India. But her story was a great inspiration as I launched my medical missionary career.

Letting Go of a Dream to Embrace God’s Call

Ida grew up in India. Her grandfather was the first American medical missionary to work there. Her father had become a doctor and spent his life there as well. One of Ida’s stark childhood memories was of children starving during a famine. She never forgot the desperation in their eyes as they begged for food and her regret that she and her mother could only give one chunk of bread to each child.

Ida’s dream for her own life was to make a comfortable home with a loving husband in the United States. But after the radical change in direction that night in Vellore, she completed her medical education, graduating from Cornell Medical School in the first class to admit women.

“No doubt on that night when God confronted young Ida, she could never have imagined the outreach that exists today because of her obedience to God’s call. She obeyed and never looked back.”

Dr. Ida, as she was fondly addressed, began a women’s clinic in her parents’ house in India. Her father died suddenly only a few months after she began serving patients. In 1902 she opened the Schell Hospital in Vellore. Ida was the only surgeon working there, and her first operation was done only with the help of the butler’s wife. But four years later, by 1906, forty thousand patients had been treated at the hospital.

Training to Multiply Care and Witness

Many patients who arrived at the hospital came too late for treatment, so Ida began “roadsides” in 1909. Using an ox cart, she traveled out to remote villages on a regular basis to treat patients.

But Dr. Ida realized that by working alone she could not bring health to all the South Indian women who needed it. She knew that training others was essential for increased effectiveness. Her first step was to begin training nurses—almost unheard of in Asia at that time. Her school became the first graduate school of nursing in India. But she knew that women physicians were also needed.

As she planned a medical school for women, she was told that no women would apply and that they would not be able to pass examinations. Having raised funds and developed partners in multiple denominations in the United States and Britain, the medical school opened in 1918. Dr. Ida was the main teacher, and her students ultimately passed all exams. So, in 1923, a second hospital in the center of Vellore was built.

Dr. Ida’s vision for expanding her impact through training inspired my own practice. From the beginning of my work in India, teaching and mentoring were high priorities even as they were for Dr. Ida. In this way, my care and witness could be multiplied in the near term and extended beyond my lifetime to generations to come.

New Approaches to Medicine and Mission

Over the years Dr. Ida faced discouragements and hard times. In 1941, government regulations threatened to end her work. But she enlisted new leadership with advanced degrees. By upgrading in this way, government requirements were met.

The medical school she founded became coeducational in the 1940s but still takes a large number of female students. Her model of perseverance in the face of adversity often inspired me as I faced government opposition, financial needs for the institution I led, crises in personnel management, and personal needs such as loneliness.

Through the decades, the Christian Medical College and Hospital has led the country with many innovations in specialties and technology. It’s a premier training and treatment institution in all of Asia. The hospital is the largest Christian hospital in the world with more than two thousand beds. Excellent medical care is complemented by the ministry of chaplains who pray with patients and minister to their spiritual needs.

“I’ve witnessed how health care in the name of Jesus brings both physical and spiritual healing, a wholeness found only in Christ.”

My work in the Bangalore Baptist Hospital became entwined with Christian Medical College and Hospital as I served on the governing council there for almost thirty years. I’ve witnessed how health care in the name of Jesus brings both physical and spiritual healing, a wholeness found only in Christ.

A Life of Consecrated Purpose

No doubt on that night when God confronted young Ida, she could never have imagined the outreach that exists today because of her obedience to God’s call. She obeyed and never looked back. Dr. Ida died in her home in Vellore at the age of eighty-nine.

Over the years I’ve been inspired by Dr. Ida’s unwavering commitment to her call, her love for the Indian people, her sorrow in their suffering, her struggles in leading a growing institution, her joy in service, and her strong faith.

Her favorite hymn expresses the prayer of her life: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart . . . Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” Biographer Dorothy Clarke Wilson described Ida Scudder as a woman with “abounding energy, indomitable will, and consecrated purpose.”

Although Dr. Ida left a legacy that continues to touch millions of lives every year, she felt she had done little for Jesus. But as her life came to a close, she had a vision of her Master standing by her side and thanking her. His words came to her, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt. 25:40 NKJV).

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