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A Mission for Modernity: Canadian Women in Medical and Nursing Education in India

By Maia Lugar

The Tuan Luu Webinar Series finished its 2021-2022 season with Jill-Campbell Miller, an Adjunct Professor at Saint Mary’s University and visiting researcher with Carleton University. In 2018  she completed an AMS postdoctoral fellowship at the Gorsebrook Research Institute at Saint Mary’s University, where she examined Canadian medical humanitarianism in South Asia during the 1950s and 1960s. Campbell-Miller spoke about her chapter in Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Canadian Women and the Search for Global Order (UBC Press, 2020), which examined the role of Canadian women in medical and nursing education in India.

The presence of women in healthcare humanitarianism helped shape medical and nursing education in India, particularly through missionary work. Missionary women were often involved in healthcare in positions such as doctors with a predominantly obstetric and gynecological focus, nurses, educators, and healthcare leadership. India placed a strong emphasis on the role of women in healthcare, evidenced by the actions of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, India’s first Minister of Health following India’s independence. At independence India had five times fewer doctors per capita than the United Kingdom, with most located in urban areas, and 10 times fewer nurses. Women’s and children’s health was heavily neglected, and although India viewed medical missionaries as a form of cultural imperialism, they couldn’t expel them; Christian missionaries ran many of the best medical and nursing facilities in the country. There was a deep stigma around nursing, as it transcended deeply held taboos, such as coming into contact with bodies and bodily processes. This mimicked the jobs done by the Dalit (the so-called “untouchable” caste in Indian); this meant that nursing and medical fields were dominated by Christian missionaries. The presence of women in Indian healthcare systems had roots in an imperial system that promoted Western systems. It also, however, promoted the professional growth of Indian women in their role as educators and improved the medical system in India.

Campbell-Miller spoke specifically about Edith Buchanan and Florence Nichols, two prominent women in the Indian medical community. Buchanan, born to Canadian missionaries in Canada, grew up in India, started her medical career at a missionary nursing college. She left soon after, becoming a nursing educator. She received her doctorate from Columbia University, and became a founding member of the College of Nursing in Delhi in 1946, where she established a two-year master of nursing degree with support from the WHO. Her doctoral dissertation from Columbia was comprised of a nursing textbook that focused on the “Indian context”; textbooks until this point were written from a western perspective, spotlighting single-generation ‘nuclear families’ and dominant western societal norms. Buchanan highlighted nurses as community educators, ensuring that Indian cultural norms were considered. She left the College in 1964 and went on to work for the WHO.

Nichols was a Canadian psychiatrist who received her medical degree from the University of Toronto and went on to work in psychiatry. She worked as a missionary at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, where she helped found their department of psychiatry and organized outpatient psychiatric care. She is credited for the idea of involving family in mental health care using a hybrid approach; Western treatment styles combined with Indian ‘care’ styles.

Edith Buchanan left behind very little written work, and Campbell-Miller was required to analyze Buchanan’s actions for her research, as opposed to her words. Campbell-Miller highlighted this as a common issue when researching women’s contributions to history; women often believe and act as if they are only doing what is expected of them, and tend not to make a big deal of their accomplishments. In order to understand Buchanan’s intents, Campbell-Miller read into the choices made for her textbook; the context of Indian history and the choices and desires of the Indian National Congress, as well as the use of nationalist language and the emphasis on hopefulness and optimism. Campbell-Miller also discussed the idea of highlighting the role of individuals vs. institutions. She raised the concern in this type of work of “making heroes”; she combatted this by setting people within the social and cultural context of their work, and the institutions (and the logic of said institutions) within which the individuals work. She left the subject on this question: how are you using the individual’s life to make a broader point?

The webinar offered an opportunity to hear first-hand from Campbell-Miller on her research on Canadian women in medical and nursing education in India. As the final webinar in the Tuan Luu series on global health and history, it served as strong conclusion and highlighted the importance of international relationships to further knowledge.


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