Our Past

/Our Past

A brief narrative of Dr. Ida Sophia Scudder’s remarkable work that began as a one-bed clinic in Vellore, that has grown into this legacy of Christian Medical College and a list of important milestones from 1947 to 1993.

It was the turn of the century- January 1, 1900- when Annie Hancock and Ida Scudder landed in Madras. For us in today’s technologically wired world, the early years of the 20th century seem a lifetime away: it was the days of the Raj and India was the brightest jewel in the British Crown. But for the majority of 25 million impoverished Indians, life was a struggle.

An eager Ida joined her father’s practice in Vellore. Initially, well- meaning patients politely refused to let her examine them, teaching the impatient Ida a new lesson in patience. The first patient she was called upon to attend could hardly be described as a patient- she was a dying old woman, past any ministration of medicine and cure. Ida could do nothing, except make the old lady comfortable as she passed on. It was not what she had expected. However, the second patient she was called to attend was a simple case of swollen eyes- so swollen that they were shut tight. And when she succeeded in opening them, everyone looked at her with new eyes.

Her joy at finally being where her heart wanted to be was soon dampened when her father fell sick. ‘A few days in the mountains will help me feel better’, Dr John told his wife and daughter. And so in early March they all went up to the cooler climes of Kodaikanal. Her father regained some of his lost vitality, and she got a chance to bond with her extended family. One day, her father fell from his bicycle. An examination by a mission doctor, Dr. Lew, revealed more than just a dislocated or broken shoulder. Dr. John had a huge tumour that he had never told anyone about. Dr. Lew and Ida decided to operate on him- an operation from which he never recovered. Dr. John passed away in May 1900 and was laid to rest in the high hills of Kodaikanal.

Ida, stunned and bereft by the passing away of her father, felt orphaned in more sense that one. For starters, she had planned to do her internship under him. But that was inconsequential compared to the loss of a father, mentor and guide. On her return to Vellore, she did not know what to do- could she even dare walk in his footsteps? After a few days of mourning, her indomitable spirit prevailed and she picked herself up and opened a small, one-bed dispensary at home.

It was more than a slow week later that the first patient came. But the trickle turned into a flood, and soon she was overwhelmed. For it was an India where the average life expectancy was a mere 24 years, where one person died every minute of tuberculosis and where one in four babies died in the first year of life. Plagues, epidemics, famines and droughts were rife; cholera, leprosy, tuberculosis, eye infections, trachoma, ulcers and infections were compounded by malnutrition, poverty and unhygienic conditions. Malaria, scabies and dysentery were easily treatable, but then, medicines did not resolve the fundamental causes of ill health.

It was not just disease Ida had to battle with, but superstition, strange customs, ignorance, apathy and indifference. The victims of all of these, more often than not, were women and children. The status of women- what status, you may ask? They were largely marginalized to a non-existent existence, their lives circumscribed by zennas, childbirth and child rearing.

In September 1901, the cornerstone of the Mary Taber Schell Hospital was laid. In the interim, the increasing number of patients forced Ida to use a temporary mud-brick building with 6 beds for inpatients. Ida had to recruit a number of local women to help her with her work, and the first of these wonderful helpers was young Salomi, the cook’s wife. Ida was surprised by her eagerness to learn, and soon Salomi proved indispensible to Ida, both at the dispensary and while making house visits. Later Gnanasundram, a trained nurse, and Mrs. Gnanammal, a trained pharmacist, and several others joined Ida’s loyal, committed staff. In 1904, Dr. Louisa Hart, and her sister, Miss Lillian Hart, a trained nurse were assigned to Vellore by their mission board.

It was the house visits that gave Ida an invaluable glimpse into the culture of India, as also the sheer magnitude of the problem. Here Ida learnt trivial things- like a woman’s pulse was always felt in her justify hand, a man’s in his right- to things she found difficult to accept, such as the utter ignorance of untrained midwives. In these and so many other things, Ida had to contend with contexts, conditions and circumstances that were beyond her control and she had to make inroads into aspects of health, life and faith very different from her own.

And so it was with immense gratitude and pride that the 40 bed Mary Taber Schell Memorial Hospital for inaugurated with much fanfare and celebration on September 16, 1902. The District Collector inaugurated the building and the function was well attended by the government and local officials. The populace was surprised by the red brick building, with its sunken garden, spacious courtyards and shady verandahs; the neat wards, with their iron beds and the operating rooms drew gasps of wonder. The Hospital had two large wards, one for poor patients who were treated free of cost and the other for more wealthy patients who could afford to pay for their treatment. The small Hospital campus included a two storied bungalow, where Ida and her mother lived. Within a few days, the first inpatients were admitted, and Ida‘s hands were more than full. There were matters of life and death- as of getting the patients used to sleeping on beds, accustomed as they were to sleeping on the ground. She performed, with much trepidation, her first surgery; by the end of the year she had performed 21 major surgeries along with over 450 minor ones; and she had treated over 12,000 patients. There was always enough happening to keep Ida extremely busy. Often she gave up her vacations to keep pace with work and the hospital.

It was this apathetic attitude that Ida found extremely difficult to accept. The women knew what was right; they accepted that superstitions and blind customs made their lives a virtual prison; but so be it, they reasoned. What could Ida do for a people who looked but never saw; who listened, but did not hear; who knew but never understood? The frustrations, helplessness and limited resources troubled the young Ida, till she stumbled on the answer: empowerment. The women had to help themselves. The key to this emancipation was education. And once again Ida’s inner fire was lit: a nursing school and village trips to meet the vast unmet need outside Vellore.

While on furlough in America in 1907, Ida spent as much time raising money and garnering support for her nursing school, as attending seminars and clinics to keep herself abreast with the latest in medicine. The mission board was able to secure the services of Ms. Delia Houghton, a registered nurse, who would head the nursing school. Also joining Ida’s growing cast of characters were Miss Gertrude Dodd, with her astute administrative skills and Katherine Van Nest, with her interest in the missions and fundraising abilities.

By the end of 1908, Ida was back in Vellore and she worked tirelessly towards getting the nursing school started. Securing suitable candidates for the nursing school proved a fairly difficult task, given the general lowly status attributed to the nursing profession. It was after many trips and letters to nearby mission schools that Ida was able to get 15 students who formed the first class of the School of Nursing. Delia Houghton proved invaluable, ultimately serving the institution for 32 years and obtaining national recognition for nursing training in Vellore.

The thought of so many people outside the ambit of any medical services led Ida to begin her ‘roadsides’- going out to villages and bring medical aid  to them. She opened two dispensaries in Gudiyatham and Punganur and made several trips there every month. It was not just at the dispensaries that she administered to the sick- soon people came to know of her route and lined the roads, forcing Ida to make several impromptu stops. There, as in her hospital, she met all kinds of people and all kinds of need- illnesses that she could help with medicine and those she could helplessly do nothing about. Her heart ached for the hopeless ones, and she struggled to reconcile to the vast need, the ignorance and the tribulation. The arrival of her motor car in late 1909 sparked curiosity-and fear-but proved a blessing in tackling dusty village tracks. By the middle of 1910, the ‘roadside clinics’ had graduated from an experiment to an institution and are the precursors of today’s CHAD, RUHSA, CONCH and LCECU.

Work in the Schell Hospital remained hectic, and there were days when the patients overflowed into the verandahs. Of course, she needed a bigger hospital, anybody could see that. But Ida had learnt to dream big- they needed a new hospital and a medical school to train women doctors.

The idea of a women’s medical school was startling in its need, audacity, immensity and urgency. At the mission conference attended by doctors of all denominations, this idea was met with outright skepticism. Only two women doctors supported her. Ida’s passionate and persuasive skills led to formation of a committee to examine the matter. That was enough for Ida to begin planning- she had her heart set on a women’s medical school, located in 200 acres of a valley, set among the rolling hills of Vellore. Her mind’s eye could just see the beautiful school….

The slow deliberations of committees and decisions added to Ida’s impatience. A short trip to the hills of Kodaikanal changed that all. While looking down from a high hill, Ida was filled with the peace that passes all understanding and she made the words of a familiar hymn her own:

‘Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;

Naught be all else to me, save that thou art,-

Thou my best thought, by day or by night,

Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.’ 

In July 1913, Mrs. Lucy Peabody, an influential member of the International Missionary Council, visited Vellore as part of her India trip. She was in India to explore the possibility of setting up an Arts College for Women. ‘Why not a medical school’, Ida reflected and she was determined to show Mrs. Peabody her vision. She took the visitor around the hospital and then for some home visits. Mrs. Peabody did not seem very impressed. And then Ida took her up the hill, College Hill as we know it today, and showed her the valley where she envisioned a women’s medical school. Ida spoke of how only Indian women could be the difference, and she left it at that. Incredibly, Mrs. Peabody caught on and agreed that a women’s medical school was the need of the hour and she was ready to move and climb mountains to see the dream fulfilled. She agreed to lead the fundraising in both America and England.

Later that year Ida was able to convince the government of Madras Presidency to give her a grant for a new hospital, and the mission board agreed to buy land for the same. But her joy overflowed when the South Indian Missionary Association decided to establish a medical school for women in Vellore and appointed Dr. Ida as its first Principal. Ida was sure generations of Scudders rejoiced with her.

In 1914, Ida went back to America to raise funds and resources, both material and human. Her efforts were overshadowed by the First World War, and many times the immensity of her task- her dream- overwhelmed her. Despite the War, she returned to India in 1915, this time accompanied by Ms Gertrude Dodd who had decided to spend the rest of life in Vellore.

Back home, her days were full, but there were more doctors to help her. Now it was not just the hospital work that occupied her; she had a new hospital and medical school to plan for. There were plenty of hurdles, both mundane and serious, but Ida’s vision always helped her put things in a perspective. In July 1916, the South Indian Medical Association approved Ida’s 200 acre site as the location of the new medical school. All that was left now was the million dollars required to start the school. Never one to wait, Ida did what she could, like recruiting Pauline Jeffrey to train as a doctor and meeting Colonel Bryson.

Colonel Bryson was the head of the British Medical Department of the Madras Presidency. The authority to grant permission for the medical school rested with him. He considered Ida’s request with a mixture of amusement and skepticism. ‘No buildings, no money, no staff- and you want a medical school? You get six applications and the school is yours,’ he cynically challenged.

Ida received 69 applications, accepted the best 17 and in 1918 the Union Missionary Medical School for Women was formally opened by the Governor of Madras.

Dr Ida’s yet most prodigious project began in trying times. The rains had failed-yet again- and an influenza epidemic was sweeping the country. Nevertheless, Ida welcomed her first batch of seventeen girls as if they were her own daughters. She housed them in a bungalow near today’s Officer’s Line (Anna Salai), and used Schell Hospital and Voorhees College for teaching and instruction. Within a few days, the number of students had depleted to fourteen; but to those fourteen, Ida gave of herself. She did not just teach them dissection, anatomy and physiology; she did not just take them on rounds and show them cases and patients: she nurtured them, breathing into them her spirit of kindness, wholeness and compassion. They, in turn, found in Dr. Ida a guru herself.

The first real test for Dr. Ida came at the end of the first year, when the fourteen girls appeared in examinations conducted in Madras for the entire presidency. Beneath the façade of her cheerful confidence, Dr Ida was aware of the audacity of her project, and Col Bryson’s sympathetic commiseration that none of the girls might pass since ‘only a small percentage of men do’ added to her apprehension. After a few tense days, the poor pass percentage of 20 per cent could have hardly brought any cheer to the fourteen young ladies. Except it did– because everyone of them had passed, with four in the first class, placing the relatively unknown Union Missionary Medical School for Women at the top of the medical schools in the Presidency! Even Col Bryson had to concede that ‘the girls are setting too high a standard for the men to live up to.’

It was the 1920’s and winds of change were blowing through India: winds of nationalism and non-violence, freedom and democracy, Gandhiji and Nehru. Dr Ida, too, was swept up in the plans of building on her dream. The hospital buildings at the Thotapalayam site were coming up, but not fast enough, Dr Ida felt.  But what did she really feel on that first Graduation Day in March 1922? Pride, yes; gratitude, definitely; along with hope – something she could never have known had it not been for three unnamed, unknown women. It was a solemn ceremony, as Graduation Days continue to be in CMC; solemn, tinged with overtones of celebrations. The first Graduation Day marked the beginning of several time honoured traditions – tree planting, the jasmine chain and the singing of the College Song, ‘Silver and Blue’ written by Dr Jessie Findlay. And who better a person to give the graduation address than Col. Bryson, the skepticism having long been replaced by immense admiration and complete respect?

Far from Vellore, Mrs. Peabody was actively involved in raising money not just for Vellore, but for six other colleges in Asia. An application to the Rockefeller Fund promised one million dollars- if they could raise 2 million dollars in one year, 1922. In June of that year, Dr Ida, along with her mother and Gertrude Dodd, reached America and threw herself into this battle to raise two million dollars in about the six months she had left. It was not an easy campaign, given the economic depression of the times, and by the end of the year they were still 50,000 dollars short. Thanks to an eighty year old lady, Miss Ellen Scripps, Mrs. Peabody and Dr Ida were able to raise the two million that the Rockefeller Foundation wanted. In the meantime, Dr Ida received news that the Arcot Mission Assembly had disapproved of building the medical college on the 200-acre site that she had bought. The despair Dr Ida felt brought on a stubborn persistence, as she wrote letters and petitions, making sure her vision of the campus saw the dawn of reality.

Along with monetary resources, Dr Ida also concentrated on building a corpus of staff, as loyal, compassionate and dedicated as herself. Thus, Dr Carol Jameson, Dr Treva Marshall, were two of the many names who joined this ever widening circle of faculty and staff. The Cole Dispensary on the Thottapalayam Hospital site was opened in December 1923, but that too seemed inadequate for the growing number of patients who flocked to Vellore. But there were growing hands to help here, least of all her beloved students. The sense of fulfillment she felt on seeing them work in the Hospital, speak to patients or discuss a case, was often overwhelming. There continued to be moments of despair, as her site for the College Campus continued to be debated and argued about. And there was the utter heartache she felt on losing both Annie Hancock and her dear mother within a year and half of each other. Her strongest supporters and confidants were no more and Ida intensely grieved their absence.

The year 1925 marked 25 years of Ida returning to India as a doctor, and the town commemorated the jubilee with a celebratory function complete with all the Indian trappings of a loud band, flowers, speeches and lunch. The Hospital was growing; and there was the joy of finally having her site for the College Campus approved, after much discussion and debate. The management of the Medical School was more formalized with two governing boards, one British and the other American, and a College Council in India. Small things gave her much pleasure- like electricity connection in the hospital; and then there was, finally, the inauguration of the Main Hospital in March 1928 by Viscount Goschen, Governor of Madras. It was a grand opening, with almost the entire town in attendance. The wards, open spaces, the Chapel, the spacious waiting rooms…..but Ida knew there was more to be done. Patients came and went; the roadsides did what they could; but, what about what they could not do? It was a thought that always haunted Ida.

The year 1932 marked yet another milestone when the College Campus was formally opened by Governor George Stanley and Lady Beatrix. The campus was everything and more that Ida had first envisioned from the College Hill near two decades ago: stone buildings, arched verandahs, the domed chapel, lily pond, quarters for faculty and students, classrooms and laboratories. But Ida loved the College Chapel the best- open, simple, unpretentious- and she continued her tradition of reading I Corinthians 13 every Monday.

In October 1937, while on a train back to Vellore, Dr Ida chanced upon a small brief in the newspaper that commented on the Government’s plans to discontinue the diploma programme in medical schools. This meant upgrading all medical schools to a college status with university affiliation. The financial and resource implications stunned Ida. She knew the school had to be upgraded or it must simply shut down. Ida shuddered at the thought, but what was to be done: an upgrade meant at least 500 beds in the Main Hospital, admitting men patients, 12 qualified professors, new departments, new buildings, more finances. Ida did not want to believe that her dream was coming to an end just when it was starting. The fear and apprehension she felt moved her to write the words we know so well today: ‘Money is not the most important thing. What you are building is not a medical school. It is the Kingdom of God. Don’t err on the side of being small. If this is the will of God that we should find some way to keep the college open, it has to be done’.

The serenity she felt was juxtaposed to the conflict of questions and plans that crossed her mind. Something had to be done, and fast. In November 1937, the idea of a coeducational medical college occurred to her. It was not a new idea, but it seemed more viable given the crisis at hand. A coeducational medical college would get support from all denominations and missions and would also strengthen the resources when applying for university affiliation. The more she thought about it, the stronger she felt that it was the right and only way forward, given the situation and context of the challenge. What she was unprepared for was the strong opposition to this proposal that came from the American Board, and especially Mrs. Peabody. Ida was caught in the impasse between saving her college and her dream for ‘the women of India’.

In 1941, the Madras University granted temporary affiliation to the College, but the first batch of women medical students could join only the following year. In the meantime, Ida and Miss Dodd left for America to press the case for a coeducational medical college with the Board. World War II was going on and Ida knew it would be a long battle for her as well. While in America, Ida swung between despair, confusion and worry until it dawned on her that, firstly, this was not ‘her’ work or ‘Mrs Peabody’ work: this was God’s work and they, as we are, were only tools. More importantly, Ida realized that India was changing- she was building not for a India of yesterday or even today, but for the India of tomorrow, where women will merit not segregation but equality. Once she was clear in her heart, she made bold decisions, at the personal cost of a close friendship.  Ida knew her own tunnel vision had to be broadened to the widening vistas of larger dreams and perspectives

The decision to make the medical college coeducational was widely welcomed and it became the rallying point for a large number of mission boards, who raised resources, both human and physical, to ensure that Christian Medical College grows and does not die a whimsical dream. The cast widened to include a host of names and people whose lives and work are now part of the legendary story that is CMC- Edward Gault to Howard Somervell to Jacob Chandy to Ida B Scudder, and a thousand more.

By 1945, Dr. Robert Cochrane, the famous leprosy specialist took over as the first Principal of the Medical College. The deadline for affiliation was October 1945, and efforts were made around the world and in India to raise the resources for the new college. Dr Ida returned in late 1945, this time, sadly without Miss Dodd who had passed away in 1944. Ida was amazed at the pace of building and development taking place at every level in Vellore. And the changes in the country- political, technological, economic, social, scientific… Ida could only shake her head and wonder.  The College of Nursing, too, started the graduate programme in 1946, the first ever in India. And in 1947, the year India made her tryst with destiny, Ida and the faculty welcomed the first batch of men medical students.

Ida officially retired from CMC in August 1946, at the age of 76. But then, she was always involved in the happenings of her beloved hospital and college. Her golden jubilee was celebrated on January 7, 1950, with the Governor of Madras, the Maharaja and Maharani of Bhavnagar and a host of officials, friends, town folk and everyone else in attendance. Tributes were paid, speeches were made, extolling Dr Ida and the remarkable work she had achieved over half a century. Ida listened, amazed at what was being said, but knowing, that until permanent affiliation was through, all this meant nothing much. Among the messages of felicitations, that Dr. Hilda Lazarus, the then Principal read out, was one from Sir Lakshmanawamy Mudaliar, the Vice Chancellor of Madras University, congratulating the College on being granted permanent affiliation to the Madras University.

This, Ida, felt was fulfillment. Because it meant her epiphany were not a chimera; that her doubts and fears of the past ten years were hollow and empty; and that there was continuity; that there was a legacy. Not even the naming of the new hospital road after her came even close to sense of completeness she felt.

Ida exulted in the rapid growth and expansion that took place in the college and hospital during the decade 1950-60. She marveled at what had become of her one bed dispensary. Even when she was old and frail, she never stopped working, whether it was going on roadsides and eye camps or raising funds for the Men’s Hostel. She took immense pride in all the developments, and the uniqueness of them. Take for example the CHAD as we know it today and the Mental Health Centre: places welcoming patients and their families, addressing fundamental questions of illness, expanding the paradigm of health, educating villagers, creating awareness: all the things she had hungered to do  in the early years of her work.

Accolades poured in during her lifetime- ranging from a commendation from her alma mater to the garlands of the common people. And then there was the meeting with Pandit Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister. The statesman could not have had better words for this lady, who gave her all in obedience to a Higher calling: ‘I am honoured, Doctor’, Nehru simply said.

On May 24, 1960, in her ninetieth year, Dr. Ida passed away in her home in Hill Top at Kodaikanal.

Given below are excerpted passages* describing that day and her funeral service held on May 25, 1960 in Vellore.

May is the hottest of all months in south India. Vellore broiled in the suffocating heat, yet crowds by the hundreds moved to the center of the town; others poured in unending streams from the surrounding countryside. Stores were closed, shops shuttered, bazaars deserted as for a holiday. An awed hush pervaded the crowds. They seemed fused into one by a heat of emotion stronger even than India’s blazing sun.

‘Aunt Ida has gone!’

The news had sped to Vellore from Hill Top. The great hospital was quiet. The most skilled surgeon was one in emotion with the humblest probationer. Though the huge medical center continued to function mechanically, it was a body from which the spirit had fled. The town was scarcely less stricken, for Dr. Ida was so much a part of its life and tradition. Men she had brought into the world stopped work and became silent. Women, whose lives or children she had saved, lifted corners of their saris to wipe their eyes. Even the large percentage of the town’s population, who had never known her personally, felt bereavement. A group of boys playing an exciting football game heard the news and with sober faces quietly disappeared.

For the public service, they came in crowds as only India can muster. They poured into the courtyard of the hospital because there was no church or hall large enough. They lined the streets as the beloved figure on the flower decked open carriage made its slow last journey along the familiar road. It was the road on which she had rushed in pony cart, jutka, ancient Peugeot, modern ambulance, or on her own tireless feet. The cortege moved on slowly to the Central Church, headed by half a mile of nurses and the entire staff of the hospital and college, followed by the public of Vellore.

At the cemetery, they crowded through the gate and over the wall, filling every inch of ground, climbing trees and almost causing a crisis until a persuasive voice over the broadcasting system helped clear a space for those who were to conduct the burial service. Then finally they filled her resting place with the flowers she had loved, that glorious abundance of beauty which was India’s compensation for this season of drought and dearth and dust. It was fitting that they should leave her there to be mingled in body as well as spirit with the earth of her beloved adopted country.

Dr Ida B Scudder recorded her thoughts on her beloved Aunt’s passing away:  “ Aunt Ida was never one to look back but forward with courage and faith, so now are best memorial to her is to ‘Arise’- take on, carry on His work and our work which she started and did so well.”

*Excerpts from Dr. Ida: Passing on the Torch of Life by Dorothy Clarke Wilson and Legacy and Challenge: the Story of Dr. Ida B. Scudder by Jennifer Georgia

Important Milestones: 1947- 1993

1947 First batch of Men MBBS students.
1948 First reconstructive surgery on Leprosy patients in the world

First Neurological Sciences Department in South Asia

First Eye Camp

1950 Medical Postgraduate Courses- MD and MS
1951 New Life Centre for Leprosy Rehabilitation
1953 Opening of Men’s Hostel
1954 Radiographer Training Course
1956 Mental Health Centre opens in Bagayam
1957 Rural Health Centre, Bagayam
1961 First successful Open Heart Surgery in India

First Middle-ear Microsurgery in India

1962 Medical Records and Physiotherapy Courses
1965 Fleming Memorial Research laboratory in Virology
1966 First Rehabilitation Institute in India

Williams Research Building

Scudder Auditorium Inaugurated

1968 Occupational Therapy and Hospital Administration Courses
1969 Postgraduate Nursing Courses
1970 Nephrology Department
1971 First Kidney Transplant in India

Carman Block (Administrative Block, Bagayam Campus)

1974 New Operation Theatre Complex
1975 Community Orientation Programme for Medical Students
1976 Artificial Kidney Laboratory (Dialysis Therapy)
1977 RUHSA- Rural Unit for Health and Social Affairs- inaugurated
1978 Betatron inaugurated

ICMR Centre for Advanced Research in Virology

Nambikkai Nilayam- Institute for children with special needs- inaugurated

1981 New Ophthalmic Hospital in the Schell Campus
1982 Degree courses in Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy and Medical Records Science
1983 Low Cost Effective Care Unit (LCECU) opened
1984 Department of Continuing Medical Education
1985 Epidemiology Resource Centre
1986 National AIDS Reference and Surveillance Centre

India’s first Bone Marrow Transplant

Whole Body CT Scan

1990 Infant Open Heart Surgery

1000th Live Donor Kidney Transplant

1991 Dr. Ida B. Scudder Radiation Therapy Block

ASHA Education Block

1992 10,000th Open Heart Surgery

Department of Nuclear Medicine

1993 75 years of the Medical Education programme

Linear Accelerator in Department of Radiation Therapy