Dr. Ida Sophia Scudder: Physician, Healer, and Woman of Peace

Dr. Ida Sophia Scudder: Physician, Healer, and Woman of Peace

 Ida Sophia Scudder (December 9, 1870 – May 23, 1960) was born into the famous Scudder family. Her grandfather, Rev. Dr. John Scudder, Sr., had been the first American medical missionary, and had served as a doctor in Panditeripo, Ceylon, India with the Reformed Church in America. His seven sons, all born in India, became missionaries too. The youngest son, John Jr., married and soon became Ida’s father. Ida grew up in the Madras province as well.

As a child, Ida saw famine, drought, poverty, and disease, and the ravages these took on the health of the Indian people. She watched her parents and uncles and aunts struggle to meet almost overwhelming needs. She determined in her heart never to become “one of those doctors or missionaries.” When she was in her teens, however, Dwight L. Moody invited her to come to study at Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts, a women’s college he had started in 1879, and she made the long journey to the United States by steamship.

Upon her graduation, in 1890, Ida returned to her home at the mission bungalow at Tindivanam to nurse her ailing mother. During her stay, she had a life-changing experience. In a single night, three frantic knocks at the door for desperate help revealed the need for female physicians. That night, because there was no female doctor available, and the women refused to be treated by a male doctor because of their conservative customs, three women died of complications of childbirth. Ida was unequipped to help them during their trauma. She sensed that night the call of God to become a doctor to help the women of India. And that is just what she did.

Ida returned to America, enrolled in Cornell medical college in New York City, and graduated in 1899 as part of the first class that accepted women as medical students. She was then given a financial gift of $10,000 by a Manhattan banker, Mr. Edward Schell, to erect a woman’s clinic in India in honor of his wife who had died. Ida located this dispensary in Vellore, some seventy-five miles from her home in Madras. Her father became ill and died in 1900, within months of her return. Despite this heartbreak, she went to work. In two years, she had already treated 5,000 patients.

Within another two years, Ida opened the Mary Taber Schell Hospital, with a medical school attached for young women who wanted to study medicine. In its first year, Ida's school received 151 applications. At first, the Reformed Church in America was the primary financial supporter of the Vellore school, but after Dr. Scudder agreed to make it coeducational, it eventually gained the support of more than forty missions.
In 1928, Ida and her team broke ground for the "Hillsite" medical school campus on 200 acres at Bagayam, Vellore. In this year, Mahatma Gandhi visited the school. Ida returned to the US many times to raise millions of dollars to fund the college and hospital. In 1945, it was opened to men as well as women. In 2003 the Vellore Christian Medical Center was the largest Christian hospital in the world, with 2,000 beds, and its medical school was one of the premier medical colleges in India. Of the 250 or so students currently studying each year at the school, about 100 are men.

Ida never married. She gave her life to the plight of Indian women and the fight against bubonic plague, cholera, and leprosy. She oversaw the clean water and food movement in that region of India, and she became known as the woman whose presence brought peace. In her bungalow at Kodaikanal, on 23 May 1960, Ida Scudder died at age 89, having fulfilled her calling well.

Today we remember with gratitude all medical missionaries and Christians who care that the world has clean water, nutritious food, and a place to find comfort and healing when the body and soul are sick. One of the best of these was Ida Sophia Scudder, who heard the cries of the hurting and responded with “a cup of cold water” in His name.

-Karen O’Dell Bullock
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