Doctor or Doctress?

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A book containing journal entries and correspondence about her experiences and work written by medical missionary, Dr. Clara Swain, upon her arrival in 1870 in Bareilly, India, and the 35 years following.

Why It Matters

Clara Swain was the first medical missionary to be sent overseas, and although earlier missionaries had been sent – usually evangelists and teachers – she was the first formally trained doctor. Her experiences in performing medical work and teaching women interested in medicine in a foreign country are representative of what an early medical missionary’s life was like.

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Analyze this evidence

  • How did the local people of Bareilly, India, treat Swain?
  • What do you feel was the most difficult part of being a missionary? Why?
  • What problems did Swain face besides widespread illness and the lack of a hospital?

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January 26, 1870 My medical work really began the first day of my arrival. When I came out of my room in the morning I found a company of native Christian women and girls eagerly waiting the appearance of ‘Doctor Miss Sahiba,’ and with the aid of a good missionary sister I was able to understand their words of welcome and find out what I could do to help them. February 7, 1870 Quite a number of the native gentlemen have called to pay their respects, as they say. Some of them have told me that they appreciate my having left my native land and all my friends to come here and care for their women who can never see a physician of the opposite sex. I have had several invitations to visit some of their houses. April 21, 1870 Calls for medical attention increase in number daily and nearly every day I go to the city both morning and evening. I visit regularly fifteen different zananas [the part of a house belonging to a Hindu or Muslim family which is reserved for the women of the household, usually the inner apartments]. It is a trial for me not to be able to talk with the women instead of speaking through an interpreter. I suppose, in a way, this first year will be my hardest in India. I have to study the diseases peculiar to the climate and country and their treatment, keeping in mind the mode of life of the people, which is not always favorable to the recovery of a patient. April 25, 1870 We greatly need a hospital and I scarcely know how to get along without one. If our work continues to increase we could care for many more if had a suitable place for patients to remain with us, and it would also save much of our time and strength. Hospitals, especially for women and children, are much needed in India, and if properly conducted might do much for their social and religious improvement as well as for the relief of their physical suffering. In talking with a native gentleman a few days ago, he remarked, ‘Such homes for the sick are just what we need. Native ladies would not hesitate to go to a hospital superintended by a lady physician, and I am anxious that the first one should be in Bareilly.’ Was not this encouraging?