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Edith Mary Brown: The Whitehaven Missionary who Pioneered Medicine in India for Women

Previously for Women's History Month we covered the likes of Catherine Marshall who led the suffragette movement in Keswick, Mary Somerville the woman who discovered Neptune and Jane Haining the border missionary who saved Jewish girls in WW2.

This year we’ve added to this roster of inspiring Cumbrian and border county women with Edith Mary Brown, a woman from Whitehaven who pioneered medicine for women in India.

Edith Mary Brown was born in Whitehaven on the 24th of March in 1864 to parents George Wightman Brown, a bank manager and her mother Mary Walther. During the time Edith attended Manchester High School for girls her father died and the family relocated to London.

Despite her grief she went onto attend Croydon High school where she excelled to such an extent Edith won a scholarship to the prestigious Girton College Cambridge.

At Girton, Edith studied natural sciences and became one of the first women to be admitted to the Honours Degree Examination at the University of Cambridge, an exam that was reserved for only men at the time and she achieved all of this at just 18.

After smashing natural sciences Edith developed a passion for medicine and went onto study medicine at the London School of Medicine for Women and afterwards set her sights and achieved a PHD in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1891.

As a doctorate Edith had a career as a science teacher at Exeter High School for Girls but it was the inspiring work her older sister did as a missionary that spurred her into wanting to practise both medicine and missionary work.

The Baptist Missionary Society offered Brown a place in Ludhiana in North India and on the 9th of November 1891 she landed in Bombay which is now modern day Mumbai to set out her work as a missionary.

Modern day Ludhiana’s Shri Krishna Temple of Ludhiana

It’s said by scholars that Edith was shocked by medical conditions in India and wanted to educate women and midwives and she was even more appalled by the neglect of medical treatment for women who were often being untreated for diseases.

A Bristolian woman sent Edith, and other women missionaries based in Ludhiana, £50 (£5,085 now) to help set up a medical school with 30 beds with the aim of training Indian nationals, particularly women in medical education and health care.

The Ludhiana medical school grew into a full college that had medical, nursing and pharmacy schools and had up to 200 hospital beds.

Ludhiana Medical School in the current day

During the partition of British India in 1947, the state of Punjab was split into India and Pakistan and resulted in massacres of thousands in Ludhiana.

Many Muslims that were hospital employees sought refuge in Pakistan but, despite the violence, the hospital remained safe and became an emergency centre for the seriously injured.

By 1951 the college had trained and graduated over 143 nurses, 411 doctors and more than 1,000 midwives and at the end of the year Brown retired as principal and lived out their retirement in Kashmir.

In 1957 the Brown Memorial Hospital was built which has since become a premier institution in medicine offering over four colleges in nursing, dental, medical and physiotherapy.

A portrait photograph of Edith Mary Brown

Clearly since the opening of the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana over 122 years ago it has had a long lasting impact in advancements in medicine for India.

Edith Mary Brown pioneered medicine and medical practice for Indian women who were victims of what she describes as the disease of ignorance towards women’s health which made them deprived of proper healthcare.

She was also revolutionary for a time when medicine was dominated mainly by the patriarchy which upheld sexist views when it came to Women practising medicine.

Not bad for a woman from Whitehaven eh?

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