Scudder, Ida S.

1870 - 1960
Medical missionary
Reformed Church in America

Ida Sophia Scudder was born on December 9, 1870 to Dr John Scudder Jr. and Sophia Scudder (née Weldt) in a mission bungalow in South India’s provincial town of Ranipet.

Ida’s grandfather Dr John Scudder who reached Chennai in 1836 after a successful 19-year stint in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, was the first medical missionary from the United States to arrive in India. Dr Scudder established a printing press to distribute scriptures and tracts in Tamil.[1]  He and his wife Harriet had 13 children, of whom seven sons and two daughters survived. All seven followed in their father’s footsteps as missionaries to India.[2]Of the five sons who were physicians, Silas D. Scudder set up the Scudder Memorial Hospital in Ranipet in 1866, which Ida’s father John Scudder Jr. took charge of in 1872.[3]

Growing up on a mission station, little Ida soon became aware of the famine, poverty and disease and was determined to escape all of that, back home in the US. 

After a stint at the Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts starting in 1887, she planned to marry and settle down. But in 1890, before she could graduate,[4] Ida travelled to India to be of support to her father when her mother lay ailing at the mission bungalow in Tindivanam.[5] Young Ida was determined never to become a “missionary Scudder".

One night in 1894 changed the course of Ida’s life. As she stayed up writing letters, there was a frantic knock on the door. A high-caste man pleaded with her to assist his wife in childbirth. When Ida offered to call her father the doctor, he refused as a male who was not of the family was barred from entering the women’s quarters. The same night, two other knocks brought requests of a similar nature, imploring the young teenager and resisting any help from her father. 

The next day, even as a concerned Ida asked a servant to find out about the women, a funeral procession wound its way to the river. All three women were found to have died during childbirth, and Ida Scudder said good-bye to her American dream. She had received her call with “three knocks in the night”.[6]
A motivated Ida began medical studies at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1895. She transferred to Cornell Medical College, New York for her final year, receiving her M.D. in 1899.[7] She returned to Vellore to intern with her father but he died within five months of her arrival, and the mantle fell on young Ida.

A 10’ by 12’ room in her father’s bungalow, with a bed and a window to dispense medicines, was her clinic. First her mother’s guest room, then a mud hut with six beds in the compound, all became extensions of the clinic. In the first two years, she is said to have treated 5,000 patients.[8] But Ida had a larger vision.

Before returning to India after her medical studies, Ida’s fund-raising plans, though approved by the board of the Reformed Church, had hit a roadblock till a wealthy Manhattan banker, a Mr Schell, offered $10,000 to build a hospital in memory of his wife. 

In 1902, the 40-bed Mary Taber Schell hospital opened in Vellore. It was the mustard seed for today’s healthcare organisation with a network of around 3,844 beds spread across six campuses.[9]The Schell Hospital was the only facility for women in an area with a million people. As the facility’s sole medical professional, Ida had no help except a casual helper’s wife named Salome. In the first year, 12,000 patients were treated; the number grew to 40,000 by 1906.[10]

Ida began training nurses not just to serve in her hospital, but to fulfil her dream of creating an army of staff nurses for other hospitals and also to go out into the hinterlands and educate the masses in order to prevent the outbreak of diseases. The nursing school that she began in 1909 evolved to become India’s first graduate school of nursing, affiliated to the Madras University, in 1946.

The year 1909 saw the beginning of another of her indefatigable ventures – “roadside clinics”. In her tiny Peugeot, probably the first motor car in the region, Ida Scudder began weekly trips to a church dispensary 25 miles away. Stops were decided en route, typically, under a sprawling banyan or tamarind tree where the sick could consult with the “doctor-on-wheels”. Today, this legacy lives on as mobile clinics which are part of a dedicated Community Health Department with multiple initiatives for the rural and urban poor. With their holistic objective of socio-economic welfare, they serve over 100,000 outpatients and inpatients.[11]

By 1913, the need to expand the capacity of the hospital was evident. Ida raised a request for $3,000 to her mission board. But her vision was much grander, a new hospital with a medical college for women! While a stunned mission board grappled with this request, Ida found support in Dr McPhail of the Church of Scotland, and Dr Anna Kugler, a Lutheran missionary.

That year, two Baptist women came visiting – Lucy Peabody and Helen B. Montgomery. They were keen to see a women’s Christian college in India, but for the arts, not medicine. Ida was determined to change their mind. She took them on a village visit to experience the abysmal ratio of just 150 women doctors to 150 million women in all of India’s 700,000 villages.[12] When Helen asked why more women could not be trained, Ida explained that the one Christian medical school for women was in Ludhiana, thousands of miles away, and Indian parents were reluctant to send their daughters so far from home.

Ida then took the two women to a valley sprawling over 200 acres in the outskirts where animals grazed. It was the site where Ida dreamt that her medical school for women would one day occupy. In an instant, Lucy Peabody caught the vision. She is reported to have exclaimed, “Dr Scudder, you must be the one to build the medical college – and here in this valley.”[13]Lucy then enlisted support from many denominations across America and Britain.

Interestingly, Ida’s grandfather Dr John Scudder Sr., on one of his trips from Ceylon before he relocated to Madras, had trekked to the hilltop which overlooked this very same valley. He later wrote in his diary on September 25, 1824: “This morning I went out to view the size of Vellore. As it is situated at the base of a mountain, I thought I would ascend it...The view is most charming. Vellore is an excellent place for missionary labour. It needs a dozen of labourers.”[14] 

In her characteristic style of hitting the ground running, Ida Scudder started the medical school in rented premises with 17 girls in 1918, and called it Union Mission Medical School for Women. Of these, 14 graduated in 1922, six of them winning prizes at the Madras Presidency level and one winning a gold medal in anatomy in competition with men from six medical schools.[15]

A new hospital in the bazaar section of Vellore was dedicated in 1924, and the medical school soon shifted there from its makeshift rented premises. In 1932, the institute, with 105 students, moved to beautiful white stone buildings in the valley that Ida Scudder had envisioned in 1913, and that her grandfather had written about over a century earlier.

With an army of dedicated Christians of many nationalities, both the hospital and the medical school continued to grow. In 1938, however, a crisis of existence threatened the institution when the government of Madras Presidency abolished the school’s medical practitioner’s certificate course, and mandated that only universities could award degrees. Upgrading the school to university affiliation status called for at least a million dollars’ worth of buildings, equipment and a highly qualified teaching faculty. 

A 72-year-old Ida could have considered that her race was run and left the institute to its fate. Faith triumphed over resignation and she undertook a three-year fund-raising endeavour across North America. Also, she made a strategic decision which proved instrumental in ensuring the survival of the college and the support of multiple denominations – opening the college to men! These changes necessitated a change in name to Christian Medical College (CMC), which proudly earned its permanent affiliation to Madras University in 1950.[16]

This development also led to support from organisations rallying under the banner of “Friends of CMC Vellore”, now present in eight countries,[17] including 44 associations in India.

During her lifetime Ida Scudder saw her single-bed clinic become one of the largest in all Asia, with specialities in radiation-oncology, thoracic surgery, nephrology, leprosy surgery and rehabilitation, microbiology, rural work, mental health, ophthalmology, and many others. 

Honouring the pioneering tradition of Ida Scudder, CMC Vellore also lays claim to many illustrious “firsts” in the history of healthcare. Dr Paul Brand performed the world’s first reconstructive surgery for leprosy-affected limbs after he came on staff in 1946. In an iconic move designed to de-stigmatise the disease, Dr Brand also set up a leprosy rehabilitation centre within the residential area of the campus.

In 1961, Dr N. Gopinath, who trained at the department of cardio-vascular thoracic surgery, conducted the first successful open-heart surgery in India at CMC.

Other “firsts” include India’s first kidney transplant in 1971, bone-marrow transplant in 1986, followed by the nation’s first successful “ABO incompatible” kidney transplant in 2009.[18]

A dramatic “call” that made a young woman give up the comforts of home, marriage and family in a single-minded act of devotion, birthed what is today one of India’s most recognised centres of healthcare excellence.[19]

A lover of nature, Ida moved to the idyllic hill station of Kodaikanal in her sunset years. and died at the age of 90 on May 24, 1960. 


  1. ^ Jared Bell Waterbury, Memoir of the Rev. John Scudder, M.D.: Thirty-six Years Missionary in India (New York: Harper & Brothers,1870), 118, (accessed August 30, 2023). 
  2. ^ (accessed on August 30, 2023). 
  3. ^ (accessed on August 16, 2023). 
  4. ^ (accessed on August 16, 2023). 
  5. ^ Town 130 kms south of Chennai. 
  6. ^ .Dorothy Clarke Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (1987) 26-30, here, 26, (accessed on August 16, 2023). 
  7. ^ (accessed on August 17, 2023). 
  8. ^ Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”, 27. 
  9. ^ (accessed on August 17, 2023). 
  10. ^  Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”, 27. 
  11. ^ 1-4. https://wwOutreach Services, Yearbook 2016, Christian Medical College Vellore (2016) 1-6; here (accessed on August 17, 2023). 
  12. ^ Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”, 28. 
  13. ^  Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”, 28. 
  14. ^ CMC Missions Heritage, (accessed on August 30, 2023). 
  15. ^ Wilson, “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”, 28. 
  16. ^ CMC Year book 2013, 8, . (accessed on August 30, 2023).
  17. ^; 46, archived on September 2013 (accessed on August 18, 2023). 
  18. ^; 44, archived on September 2013 (accessed on August 18, 2023). 
  19. ^ CMC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic earned it three awards; from the India Today group, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and Consortium of Accredited Healthcare Organizations.,were%20screened%20by%20Ernst%20%26%20Young( accessed on August 30, 2013).  

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for


Waterbury, Jared Bell. Memoir of the Rev. John Scudder, M.D.: Thirty-six Years Missionary in India. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1870.

Wilson, Dorothy Clarke. “The Legacy of Ida Scudder”. International Bulletin of Missionary Research (1987).