Doctor or Doctress?

Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians

A photograph of the medical class of 1870 in Bareilly, India, with Dr. Clara Swain. From a Glimpse of India by Clara Swain.

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“Why I Want to Go to Arabia”: Early Medical Missionaries in the Middle East

In the second half of the 19th century, women gained the freedom to pursue formal education and professional practice in medicine with the opening of medical schools such as Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.  The missionary field held great appeal for women doctors.  By 1947, over 150 graduates of Woman’s Medical College had become medical missionaries, mainly in China and India.  Careers as missionaries allowed young women graduates to work independently with an array of patients, daily adventure, reliable salaries, and the possibility of making a major impact on the well-being of those they treated by founding hospitals and medical schools.  There was a great need for women doctors, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.  Because of the custom known as ‘purdah’ [the practice of concealing women and segregating them from men], women in countries such as Kuwait and India were unable to receive proper medical care and many died during or after childbirth because of infections.  Because of purdah, women were not formally educated, and even trained midwives lacked sufficient medical knowledge to properly care for women who were ill.  All of that began to change, however, as women were formally trained as doctors, started serving as missionaries, and founded medical schools and hospitals for the people they treated overseas.

Dr. Clara Swain began training her first class of local women just 2 months after arriving in Bareilly, India.  The graduating members of the class of 1870 are wearing their white chadars [a large piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and upper body leaving only the face exposed].

Creator: Swain, Clara A., 1834-1910

Contributor: Methodist Episcopal Church. Woman's Foreign Missionary Society

Publisher: James Pott & Compnay

Publisher Location: New York

Language: english

Item Number: hq1431_s9_001_48a

Pages: 391

Size: 12.7X18.9

Physical Collection: A Glimpse of India: Being a collection of extracts from the letters of Dr. Clara A. Swain, ACC-HQ1431/S9

Link to OPAC Record:,40,64,B/frameset&FF=ehq+1431+s9&1,,2

Cite this source: Title of document, date. Early Medical Missionaries in the Middle East: Why I Want to Go to Arabia. Doctor or Doctress?: Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians. The Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections. Philadelphia, PA. Date of access.

Swain, Clara A., 1834-1910

Missionaries, Medical--India

Women physicians--India

Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania -- Alumni and alumnae