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Celebrating International Women’s Day: Nothing Stopped the Women Missionaries in EMMS’ Past

Published 07 Mar 2017

To fully appreciate the courage of the 19th century women who travelled overseas to deliver healthcare with the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society, one has to think about the social context of their time. Ideas of equality had emerged with the French Revolution in the 1780s, and with the women's suffrage movement of the 1800s. But, on the whole, to be a woman in the 19th century meant living in a patriarchal society with few legal rights, confined to a domestic role, and with property and income controlled by your husband. But early EMMS women refused to let this stop them helping other women across the world.

eleanor montgomery.jpgDr Eleanor Montgomery was one of the first women to graduate in medicine from Edinburgh University with the help of EMMS. She came from a family of missionaries, and believed that she could help more women than male doctors could in countries where women are typically segregated. Montgomery was sent to India by the Irish Presbyterian Church on her first mission. She learned to speak Gujarati and travelled long distances to treat patients as there was no nearby hospital. Despite cholera outbreaks afflicting her colleagues, she persevered with her work. She taught local women English and trained many as dispensaries. When ill health forced her to leave India in 1922, she left behind an enduring legacy of empowering women in healthcare.

Before the age of international flights and package holidays, travel was not for the faint of heart. Sea voyages took many months, while road isabella bird bishop.jpgpotholes and highwaymen made overland travel just as treacherous. But that didn't stop women like Isabella Bird Bishop. Renowned in Victorian Britain for her writings about her overseas adventures, she travelled to America, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, India and Korea from 1854 until her death in 1904. Isabella married John Bishop, a Director of EMMS, in 1881 and together they raised thousands of pounds for the charity. When he died after only five years of marriage, Isabella trained as a nurse. Her medical work in Kashmir, Tibet and Persia helped hundreds of poor communities and she founded the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in India in memory of her late husband.

eleanor pringle.pngAnother woman who championed EMMS was Dr Ella Pringle. A pupil at Edinburgh Ladies’ College, now Mary Erskine’s School, she went on to become a star student at Edinburgh University, winning many prizes. After graduating in medicine in 1909 she was sent by the United Free Church of Scotland to a mission hospital in Manchuria, China, where she devoted herself to training local women midwifery skills. The adverse conditions eventually affected health and in 1916 she returned from China. Back home in Scotland, she developed maternity and child welfare schemes at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Sick Children’s Hospital. In 1925 she was the first woman to become a member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 

YOU can be part of the story too. Today EMMS International works with a whole host of women nurses, midwives and doctors who deliver life-saving care and demonstrate Christ’s love to other women in India, Malawi and Nepal. Support their work this International Women’s Day by gifting a stethoscope for examining pregnant mothers, or pain relief for terminally ill women. https://www.emms.org/get-involved/gifts-for-life/