In the early 1890s in India, before Ida Scudder had even decided to study medicine, she was summoned one evening to attend several women in childbirth whose husbands refused to allow the presence of a male physician. Watching helplessly as all three women died, Scudder committed herself to providing Indian women with medical education and care. She went on to do just that, in a career spanning five decades.
Ida Scudder was born in Ranipet, India, to a missionary family. Her grandparents on her father's side had moved to India as the country's first medical missionary family. Following tradition, her father John completed medical training and then set up a mission in Vellore, India, with his wife, Vermont-born Sophia Weld. The couple had six children, of which Ida was the youngest and the only daughter. In 1878, following a cholera epidemic and a severe famine, the couple decided to go to the United States for a short time. When they returned to India a few years later, they left 13-year old Ida behind under the stern guardianship of an aunt and uncle to complete her education.
In 1887 when they also left to become missionaries in Asia, Ida Scudder confessed in her diary to feelings of loneliness and abandonment. At Northfield Seminary, in Massachusetts, she spent a few years in school, but was forced to withdraw in 1890 without graduating in order to return to India and care for her sick mother. Firmly set against a missionary life, Scudder planned to leave India as soon as possible. After watching three women die in childbirth she changed her mind, realizing that she wanted to carry on the work of a medical missionary.
She returned to the United States, resolved to follow in her father's footsteps. In 1895, she enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, completing her final year in 1899 at Cornell University Weill Medical College in order to take advantage of that institution's exceptional clinical training. Immediately after graduation, she set out to raise money to establish a hospital in Vellore, India. The following year, she set off for India with Annie Hancock, a classmate from Northfield Seminary. Within just a few months of her arrival, however, her father died. Her father's former patients were wary of the new young woman physician, and Scudder found herself operating in a tiny mission bungalow with her mother as assistant. With the money she had collected in America, she began the construction of a small hospital, which opened in 1902. For the next 22 years, she remained the hospital's only surgeon. Travelling by train, carriage, or pony cart, she also established a roadside dispensary service to treat patients who could not make the trip to Vellore, as well as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Eventually, her weekly trips to the countryside developed into a system of roadside clinics offering public health services and education to people in remote locations.
Convinced of the need to train Indian women to provide medical treatment to other women, Dr. Scudder began a program at her hospital to instruct women nurses, which expanded into a nursing school by 1909. Her next ambition was to open a medical school to train physicians. This was no easy matter. She had to raise funds in Britain and the United States, promote interdenominational support for the project among religious and missionary groups, and convince the local Indian government to provide subsidies.
With the help of her close friend Gertrude Dodd, who provided funds from her inheritance, Dr. Scudder managed to achieve her goal, and the Union Mission Medical School for Women opened in 1918. Making regular trips abroad to raise funds and support for the school, she continued as its surgeon, instructor and administrator. The school faced a crisis in 1938, when the Chennai (Madras) government passed a law that medical degrees could only be granted by universities, but instead of closing the school, Dr. Scudder lobbied her supporters. By 1950, the school had become affiliated with the University of Madras. Dr. Scudder retired shortly thereafter, having seen her school grow from a small institution to one that supported a large staff and trained hundreds of women nurses and physicians.
Throughout her career, Dr. Scudder's work brought her wide renown, in addition to numerous awards. She died in 1960 at her bungalow home in India, where she had spent her life helping to improve medical education.