Clara Swain is the World’s First Woman Missionary Doctor

Clara Swain arrived in Bombay, India on January 3 1870, and went on to set up the first Women’s hospital in Asia. Her travels had been overwhelmingly difficult and gruelling, including a sea voyage that caused her to note, “I cannot bear to think of the sea, it treated me so badly”.

She had graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia the previous year, at the age of 35.

Rev D W Thomas, working in Bareilly, in northwest India, identified the need for a lady physician to attend the many women who needed medical attention. Male doctors were not allowed to attend women and high caste women were kept in seclusion, mostly attended by unskilled girls who could hardly meet their medical needs.

In Clara’s day women doctors were rare. The first woman to qualify in medicine was Elizabeth Blackwell, who graduated from medical school when Clara was 14. Clara did not even consider a calling to medicine until a dying woman physician put out a call for women to go into medicine. Clara prayed long about the calling and did not graduate until she was 35.

Clara Swain responded to the need in Indian and thus became “the first woman missionary doctor in the world.”

On her first day at her base in northwest India she treated fourteen patients, and soon found herself deluged with patients – 100 in the first six weeks. Within three months she had opened a dispensary and begun a medical class with fourteen native girls and three married women, who graduated in 1873. Single-handed, she lectured on anatomy, physiology, materia medica, and diseases of women and children. Training the girls proved so demanding that she did not attempt a second school, but the call had gone out for more women doctors to follow Clara’s example, and in time many women doctors came to her aid.

A need for a women’s hospital soon became obvious. Nearby a Moslem prince had 42 acres containing wells and gardens and a large house. This Nawab of Rampore had declared that he would never allow a Christian missionary into his city. Dr Swain travelled to Rampore and spent much time in prayer before meeting the prince. When she made her timid appeal that his land might be purchased, the prince replied, “Take it! Take it! I give it to you with much pleasure.”

On 4 January, 1874, the first women’s hospital in the Orient was opened. Three thousand patients passed through the doors during the first twelve months.

In 1885, whilst treating the wife of the Rajah of Rajputana, Clara Swain accepted a royal invitation to become court physician. This position she occupied for ten years.

During all her 25 years in India she treated thousands of patients and “considered herself primarily an evangelist”. She was there to bear witness to the One who was able to heal the sin-sick soul.

She wrote extensive letters sharing about the poor spiritual state of the women in India. One woman wanted to worship Clara’s sewing machine. The women had all been warned of dire consequences if they learned to read. Superstition trapped them. And baby girls were killed without any sense of remorse from the parents.

She also endured many hardships and dangers, starting with her voyage to India and including a life-threatening flood and mudslide, spending the night outdoors due to horses that would not move, and a close call while riding an elephant.
In 1896, due to continued poor health, Clara returned to the USA, but was able to visit India again in 1906. Clara’s letters were published in book forming 1909, titled, A Glimpse of India.

Clara Swain died on Christmas Day 1910, back in her hometown of Castile, New York, in 1910, where she had been born 76 years previously.

(Reference: Guardians of the Great Commission, by Ruth Tucker)

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

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  1. Barbara E. Campbell says

    Good story. It should also indicate she was sent to India and supported by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She was sent with Isabella Thoburn whose first class of 6 students became Isabella Thoburn College, the first college for women in Asia. Clara Swain Hospital (Bareilly)l and Isabella Thoburn College (Lucknow) are active institutions today.


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