Health Care Heritage
United Methodist Women would probably never have been established without our Methodist foremothers’ concern for health care.
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 14, 1869, a discussion between three Methodist Episcopal women sparked a national Methodist women’s movement. Mrs. Butler (first name not known) and Lois Stiles Parker, missionary wives who had lived in India, explained to Mrs. Lewis Flanders (first name not known) that Indian women were underserved because traditional customs limited contact between genders, and there were no female doctors.
The following story from an article in the Zion’s Herald from 1919 described the situation:
“It was found that men could not work among the secluded women of the Orient. We are all familiar with the story of the physician who was called to see a patient and found himself obliged to base his diagnosis upon a glimpse of her tongue, thrust through a hole in a curtain, and the feeling of her pulse, also through an opening in the curtain. This was accompanied by the pressure of the husband’s pistol in the small of the physician’s back — intended to discourage undue familiarity.”
These three women recognized the potential of female doctors in India, and decided to organize the Methodist women of Boston. Nine days later on a stormy night, six women met at Tremont Street Church to organize the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (WFMS-ME).
Three months later in their premier issue of The Heathen Woman’s Friend, a predecessor of Response, the founders explained their capacity for work while the men fought in the Civil War, “Providence has freed our hands for new and grander undertakings” (May 1869).
Dr. Clara Swain
At a time when U.S. society idealized housewives, these women decided to address the needs of women abroad by “send[ing] out single ladies as Missionaries.”
They began searching for a female doctor willing to go to India to address the immediate health concerns of underserved women and children, as well as a female educator who could prepare indigenous girls and women to become doctors.
In June 1869, Dr. Clara Swain, a recent graduate who was recommended by her alma mater Philadelphia Woman’s Medical College, debated accepting the WFMS-ME’s invitation to work in India. She wrote, “I do wish to do what my Heavenly Father wishes me to do, if I only knew what that was.”
Her hesitancy stemmed from a personal illness, which caused her to become incapacitated when her blood was overheated or when she was exhausted.
A month later, after having been reassured that the climate would not affect her health, Ms. Swain agreed to go to India. On July 8, she described her decision in another letter:
“I begin to feel that I am without excuse if the Society considers me capable of assuming so great a responsibility. I feel very incompetent, both spiritually and intellectually, still I am willing to go and do what I can.”
Educator Isabella Thoburn was chosen to travel to India. Ms. Thoburn traveled unaccompanied by male chaperones in the hope that doing so would allow her to train Indian women to care for the health of their community members.
Nov. 2, 1869, only eight months after the WFMS-ME was formed, they hosted a farewell benefit meeting in New York City (tickets cost 50 cents a seat), and they sent their first two missionaries to India the following day.
Ms. Thoburn spent decades working in India. She established the first women’s college in Lucknow. Ms. Swain built the first missionary hospital for women and children in Asia.
Although she had originally been concerned about her own health, Ms. Swain spent 16 years working with the WFMS-ME to care for the medical needs of women in India.
The interest in health care didn’t stop with Ms. Swain’s and Ms. Thoburn’s efforts in India. In 1885, the Northwestern Branch of the WFMS-ME heard about a similar lack of health care for women in Korea. Their response was to support female missionary Dr. Meta Howard, who established the first missionary women’s hospital in Korea named Po Kyu Nyo Koan, which translates as House of Many Sick Women.
In 1890, the WFMS-ME sent Dr. Rosetta Sherwood to replace Ms. Howard. Three years later, after marrying William James Hall, Rosetta, opened the Baldwin Dispensary, which was later renamed the Lillian Harris Memorial Hospital. This hospital became the main missionary hospital for women in Seoul, Korea. At Ms. Hall’s request for nurses, the WFMS-ME sent Ella A. Lewis, the first missionary nurse to attend to women’s health in Korea, and Margaret J. Edmunds, who established the first Methodist missionary nursing school for Koreans in Seoul.
The interest in health care did not stop with WFMS-ME efforts in Korea. The first medical missionary supported by the Des Moines Branch of the WFMS-ME was Dr. Mary Stone, a native of China, whose education at Michigan University, in Ann Arbor, Mich., was paid for by the branch in the 1890s.
Known as the only female medical missionary in all of central China in the early 20th century, Ms. Stone ran the Elizabeth Skelton Danforth Hospital with continued support from the WFMS-ME. In 1909, the Central Christian Advocate reported that, “Last year Ms. Stone treated 12,000 clinic patients and 314 in their homes, in all 12,724.”
The interest in health care didn’t even stop with the WFMS-ME efforts. The WFMS-ME inspired the women of the Methodist Protestant Church to act upon their concern for medical care for women outside the United States. Feb. 14, 1879, they gathered at First Methodist Protestant Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., to organize their own Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS-MP). One of their missionaries, Mattie Long, worked as a housemother to 100 orphans in Dhulia, India. In 1904, Ms. Long adopted an Indian daughter named Suvarta.
In November 1917, an epidemic of whooping cough spread throughout her school and 13-year-old Suvarta developed double pneumonia. Because there were no doctors or hospitals available, Ms. Long watched her beloved daughter suffer for longer than a month before dying. This sorrow led Ms. Long to envision the establishment of a missionary hospital.
Ten years later, Dr. Edith Lacey, the first medical missionary sent by the WFMS-MP to India, arrived to open the Suvarta Hospital thanks to the vision and efforts of Ms. Long.
The WFMS-MP also sent out other medical missionaries including Dr. Roberta Fleagle. Ms. Fleagle set sail from Vancouver, June 3, 1920, as the first Methodist Protestant medical missionary to China. During her first year, Ms. Fleagle saw 30 to 40 patients a day.
Health care advocacy today
The efforts and achievements of early Methodist women’s foreign missionary societies reflect the great value that Methodist and United Methodist women have put on health care during the past 140 years. This commitment continues today as United Methodist Women funds hospitals, clinics, midwives, wellness programs and home health care workers around the world.
United Methodist Women is also rallying for health care reform in the United States. By starting discussions, becoming educated, raising awareness, lifting up prayers and seeking justice, United Methodist Women members work with the passion and courage of our foremothers who organized themselves and initiated programs to deliver health care to women and children.
*Heather Parrish is a master’s of divinity student at Drew University in Madison, N.J. She is working with the Church Center for the United Nations chaplain’s office as an intern this year.