The Scudder Family and Ida’s Call

//The Scudder Family and Ida’s Call


Ida Sophia Scudder’s story- and therefore CMC’s- begins with her surname, a name, which at one point in her life, she would have readily disowned.

Her grandfather, Rev. Dr. John Scudder was born in New Jersey in September 1793, the second of twelve children. He trained in Princeton and New York, and ran a successful practice in New York. He was known for his skill and kindness, aspects that drew a large number of patients to him. A devout Christian, Rev. Dr. John was challenged by Christ’s command to ‘preach the Gospel and heal the sick.’ The eternal question, ‘Who will go- send me’ struck at the heart of the young Dr. Scudder and he was wont to disobey it. He became thoroughly committed to serving God through the medical missions of the American Board and later of the Dutch Reformed Board. While his wife, Harriet Scudder supported him in this venture, he was disowned by his father, Joseph Scudder.

In June 1819, Rev. Dr. John, then 26 years of age, boarded the ship Indus, along with his wife, Harriet and young daughter, Maria. The journey from Boston to the then Calcutta took four long months. Once they arrived in Calcutta, they went to Serampore to meet Dr. William Carey. Unfortunately, their little daughter, Maria contracted dysentery and died. Still burdened with grief, Rev. Dr. John and Harriet Scudder set out to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon and reached Jaffna, where they established their first dispensary. It was not easy, those early days- a new place, culture, language, circumstances and situations, and the loss of two more children. But their faith did not falter, as they leaned on God to lead them through the dark nights.

He was ordained in 1821 in a Wesleyan Chapel and soon started to preach in Tamil. He started a number of schools that reached out to children of all socio-economic classes. He and his wife opened their hearts and home to several children, in addition to the nine of their own. The dispensary was where the most sick and infirm came, and it provided an opportunity to the zealous missionary to share the love of God. In 1836, the Board asked him to move to Madras, and he continued the work he had begun in Jaffna. He often travelled to places beyond Madras, at much personal risk, teaching, preaching and tending to the sick.

Rev. Dr. John’s enthusiasm and commitment to the mission work was passed on to his nine children, seven sons and two daughters. (Rev Dr John and Harriet had 13 children, 4 of whom passed away early). Five of his seven sons were both trained doctors and ordained ministers.

Henry Scudder, the eldest, established the mission at Arcot.

William Scudder also joined the Arcot mission.

Joseph Scudder, both doctor and minister, worked for the Arcot Mission.

Ezekiel Scudder worked with the Arcot Mission for over twenty years.

Jared Scudder also worked for the Arcot Mission as both doctor and minister. He was also very active in translating Christian literature to Tamil

Harriet Scudder, the oldest daughter, joined the Arcot Mission.

Silas Scudder, a doctor, established himself at the Arcot Mission.

John Scudder, both a minister and doctor, was the youngest son. He joined the Arcot Mission in 1861.

Louisa Scudder, the youngest child, worked for the Arcot Mission.

Rev. Dr. John Scudder passed away in South Africa in 1855. Later the mortal remains of Rev. Dr. John and Harriet Scudder were laid to rest at Ranipet.

Their youngest son, John Scudder, married Sophia Weld. John and Sophia had 6 children- John, Lewis, Charles, Henry, Walter and Ida Sophia. Of these children, Lewis, Walter and Ida Sophia served as medical missionaries in India. The fourth generation of Scudders was represented by Dr. Ida Belle Scudder (daughter of Lewis Scudder) and John Scudder IV (son of Walter Scudder). Ida Belle or Ida B., as she was more popularly called, and John Scudder IV, worked in CMC, Vellore- Ida B established the Radiology and Radiotherapy Departments and John founded the Blood Bank.

It is easy to write in a page or two the work done by this family of Scudders.  But mere words do injustice to the price they paid, the lives they saved, the babies they tended, the ordinary folk they cared for or the battles they won. South India, especially Tamil Nadu is dotted with institutions, schools and places started by the Scudder family. A total of 42 members of this family gave of themselves in service to others. They did it not for fame or wealth, but in obedience to a calling.

December 9, 1870….

Not long after medical work had started in Ranipet, the doctor stationed there was attending on his young wife. In ten years of their marriage, they had been blessed with five little boys- John Lewis, Charles, Walter and Henry. The sixth baby had now announced its imminent arrival into this family of pioneering medical missionaries.

‘Fida, I don’t believe it, it’s a girl!’ the doctor said as the baby arrived.

Welcomed into a loving family, and nourished by optimism, faith, fun and games, a strong little spirit grew. The little girl never lacked spunk or energy to keep up with anything her older brothers attempted. The same confidence and optimism would lead her later to hold her own in a world of professional men and to help women who had not received the freedom and encouragement she had.

When Rev. Dr. John and Sophia Scudder delightedly received their new born daughter, they had no way of knowing that the most famous medical Scudder of all would be the baby they chose to name Ida Sophia Scudder.

Ida spent her early years in Ranipet, with her parents. Her memories of India were fairly unpleasant, particularly as in the 1880s, India was in the throes of a terrible famine. She could never erase from her mind the images of hungry, starving children, begging ‘pasi’, with a dead look in their hollow eyes.

When she was eight, Ida was sent back to America for her education. While she was happy to be back in her country with its clean air and comfortable houses, she earnestly missed her parents. At the age of 14, her mother justify America to join her husband in India. That was very hard for Ida to take and for years she resented her father for separating the family.

Ida was sent to a seminary in Northfield, Massachusetts. She enjoyed her studies and friends, and was quite the leader when it came to pranks and fun. She had a close circle of friends, and was even voted the most popular girl in her class. Her friends were aware of her background, and often teased her-‘Oh, you’ll go to India and be a missionary like the rest of your precious Scudders!’ ‘I will not!’ Ida had all but shouted in reply. ‘Don’t you dare say I will’, she had replied through her tears, ‘because I won’t. Never, never, never!’ Clearly, young Ida abhorred the missionary life that so many of her family had dedicated themselves to.

She graduated from Northfield in 1890, when a cable arrived calling her back to India to tend to her ailing mother. As much as she wanted to see her mother again, the thought of going back to India unnerved her. Anyway, Ida decided that she would go to India and stay till her mother was better, and then she ‘would come back to America and live’.

She and her older brother, Harry sailed from New York in September 1890. A few weeks later, they arrived in the then Madras, where a delighted Dr. John met his two children. Twelve years had passed, but Ida was assailed with sights, sounds and smells that she thought she had long forgotten. The train ride to Tindivanam- eight hours in the humid heat and dust- was enough to make the twenty- year old Ida yearn for America.

Her mother was there to greet them when they arrived in the mission compound, and her hugs and comforting arms were a great solace to Ida. Ida soon settled to life in Tindivanam, and busied herself helping her mother and doing some work in the mission compound. Tindivanam was a small town, south of Madras and was the southernmost post of the Arcot Mission. The villages around it were poor, famine-ridden and dependent on the undependable monsoons. Apart from the hospital, Dr John was also responsible for a boarding school with a hundred boys; as a preacher, he was pastor of the local church and often went to the villages to preach the Gospel. Their house was a simple brick structure with a thatched roof.

Ida taught in the Hindu Girls School, teaching gymnastics and English. The children were a constant source of delight to her, and she grew quite fond of them. She had to remind herself not to get too attached to them, because she was going back to her home in America. Ida had the opportunity to go on a village trip with her father, uncle, Dr. Jared from Vellore and cousin, Dixie. The trip was an arduous one, with many stops both for preaching and attending to the sick. Ida was quite miserable with all the misery and poverty she saw around here, and often wondered what made her father- and so many in his family- so committed to the selfless life of a medical missionary.

One quiet evening in Tindivanam in 1890, Ida was writing a letter to her dear friend, Annie Hancock. Interestingly, she was detailing to Annie why she was not suited to a missionary life and therefore could and would never serve like so many of her family, and how much she was looking forward to returning to her carefree life in America.

Just then she heard a knock on the door. Knowing her parents were asleep, she took a lamp and went to the door.

‘Yes’, she smilingly said to the tall Brahmin at the door.

‘It is my wife, she needs help.’ He had a worried look on his face.

‘Let me call my father’, Ida nonchalantly replied.

‘Your father?!’ The man was clearly offended. ‘Not him. You,’ he plainly said.

‘But I am not a doctor- I know nothing of babies and deliveries! My father can help,’ a shocked Ida replied.

‘Never’, the man firmly reiterated. ‘Then she must die’

An appalled Ida had to close her mouth to keep the scream down. That a man could watch- allow– his wife to die because of an insidious custom dictated by caste laws!

She slowly went back to bed, each step burdened by …..

A little later there was another knock. ‘He’s back! He changed his mind’, Ida joyfully thought, relief coursing through her body. She yanked the door open- only to find a strange man at the door.

He was a Muslim.

He had the same request: a wife in childbirth, desperately needing medical help.

He had the same caveat: only a woman, not- never– a man to attend to her.

She had the same answer. And he walked away, leaving a mortified Ida in the throes of despair.

Ida went back to her room, her mind fighting the questions, seeking answers: the price of a woman’s life, the price of a baby, the price of a custom, the price of a young life.

She continued the letter to her friend, forcing herself to maintain its gay, happy tenor.

But there was a third knock- Ida physically shrank from the sound, and the knowledge of what it bought.

Yes, it was another man, the father of one of her pupils. He had come with the same agonising request for his wife. Ida could not bear the sound of her voice telling the man that though he had come to the right place, she had the wrong answer. And for the third time she helplessly watched a man walk his wife to her sure death.

Tears poured down her young, flushed face. She shut her door and fought the questions that she did not want to answer. She wrestled with her soul: Three times, three knocks – was it God calling her?  Early the next morning, she heard the unmistakable sound of drums and the wails of mourners. Her servant confirmed what had haunted her since the previous night: three young lives snuffed out because custom dictated that no man other than their family look upon them. That was her epiphany: she tore the letter to bits, washed her face and opened her door- and her life- to the greater plans and purposes of God.

Her parents were overjoyed when she announced her intentions to go back to America and study to become a doctor ‘to help the women and children of India.’

Once the fire was lit, everything else seemed frivolous. Ida could not wait to get a medical education and come back to India. It would be another 4 years before she could go back to America. In the interim, her parents moved to Vellore, the headquarters of the North Arcot district, centered on the 16th century Fort. Here too, apart from seeing patients, Dr. John took charge of the church and other educational activities. Ida bided her time by running two day schools for girls. Fond as she was of teaching the young girls, they seemed secondary to what had now become the purpose of her life.

In 1894, Ida sailed back to America. She took her examinations in early 1895, and later that year was admitted to the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, a pioneering institution for training women doctors. It was not easy in those days for a woman to train to be a doctor- there was a fair bit of hostility towards women in medicine. Nevertheless, Ida studied hard and enjoyed her busy life. For her final two years, she transferred to Cornell Medical College, New York with its more rigorous academic schedule. Her clinical assignments gave her invaluable preparation for her work in India, particularly in obstetrics. However, there was no training in the many tropical diseases that seemed so rampant in the India of that time. Ida, therefore, decided to do her internship in India under her father’s skilful tutelage.

There was much rejoicing when she cleared her final exams and was able to write ‘Dr’ in front of her name. Ida set about getting ready for her move. She was also informed that the mission board had approved plans to start a woman’s hospital in Vellore. Ida’s joy knew no bounds: ‘Anything for the women of India’, she mused, probably remembering that one night so long ago. To her dismay, she was asked to raise eight thousand dollars for it. True to her dynamic nature, she set about making lists and scheduling meetings with prospective donors. Within weeks, her confident optimism started fading when she realized that she hardly had the promise of a few hundred dollars.

Ida’s friends suggested she meet a Miss Taber, secretary of the mission’s society of a local church to see if she could talk to the woman’s group and petition some money. She met Miss Taber, who was non-committal. Also present in Miss Taber’s house was her brother-in-law, Mr. Schell. The next morning, Ida received a note saying Mr. Schell would like to meet her. Mr. Schell quizzed Ida on the many aspects of the mission service in Vellore, and heard of the transforming experience that had changed her life forever. Mr. Schell smiled and wrote her a check in memory of his wife, Mary Taber Schell. It was for ten thousand dollars. Not only that, he had supplies, instruments and fittings shipped to Vellore for the new hospital. Later at a women’s meeting, Miss Gertrude Dodd donated money to pay for Annie Hancock’s travel to India with Ida.

Annie Hancock and Dr.Ida Sophia Scudder left America for India in November 1899.

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