Dr. Clara Swain
By Anne Adams
As she treated women and children in India in the late 1800s and as the first medical missionary sent to India by her church’s women’s group, Dr. Clara Swain was a pioneer of her time.
Born in July, 1834 in Elmira, New York, Clara was the youngest of ten children and expressed her Christian faith at an early age. According to the 1912 biography Clara A. Swain, M.D., First Medical Missionary to the Women of the Orient by Mrs. Robert Hoskins, Clara and her sister joined the Methodist Church when Clara was about ten years old.
In the summer of 1855, Clara, who had already began to teach, enrolled in a seminary (teaching academy) when an aunt in a nearby community invited her to come. However, she really desired to become a physician so after training at a local health facility for three years, she enrolled in Philadelphia’s Women’s Medical College. After graduating in 1869, as she considered going to India as a medical missionary an opportunity to do so opened.
About this time, Mrs. D.W. Thomas, the director of a Methodist Mission girls’ orphanage in Bairelly, India, wrote to friends in the U.S. seeking a woman physician to come to India to treat local women. The doctor had to be female since male medics in India did not treat women, who often lived in home seclusion as dictated by their local culture.
When officials at the Women’s Medical College heard of the request they asked Clara to consider going and as she did so, she learned that her own denomination of the Methodist Episcopal Church had organized their new Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. She decided to go to India under their auspices.
It was a major decision but Dr. Swain was resolute. As Mrs. Hoskins wrote: “Confident that she was obeying the call of God, she set about her preparations for the long journey before her in a cheerful spirit, answering the demurs of her friends with, “it is God’s call. I must go.’”
Dr. Swain arrived in Bareilly in January, 1870 to treat the local women, but when Dr. Swain and her associates found they needed a clinic and dispensary a local prince, the Nawab of Rampore, offered them a house and land adjacent to the mission. Then when Mr. Thomas, accompanied by his wife and Dr. Swain, traveled to Rampore to discuss the acquisition just as Mr. Thomas began his carefully prepared Hindi address, the prince broke in.
“Take it! It is yours!” The Nawab told them, “I give it to you with great pleasure for such a purpose!”
This became India’s first hospital for women, and not only bore the prince’s name at the time but he helped support it financially. After needed repairs to the donated structure as well as the addition of a dispensary, Dr. Swain and her associates moved in and eventually began to receive patients in early 1874. According to Mrs. Hoskins, “there was no lack of occupants for the rooms.”
The facility was named for Clara and now is among the oldest and largest Methodist hospitals in India. At its peak, it offered some 350 patient beds, a nursing school and an active community outreach program. Recently, after several years of struggle, the facility has been revamped and is again a large multiple specialty hospital.
However, in 1876 an exhausted Dr. Swain returned to the U.S. for a much needed furlough, but three years later she was back at work in India.
Then in March, 1885 Dr. Swain was asked by another native prince, the Rajah of the state of Khetri, to come and treat his wife, the Rani, and other women in their community. Clara agreed and after she was assured she could teach and practice their Christian faith, she contracted for two years. The Rajah built a hospital and dispensary for the women, and it opened in June, 1885.
At the same time, the Rani approved Dr. Swain’s teacher friend, Miss P.E. Pannell, to begin a girls’ school in Khetri and conduct classes for the royal court as well as hold Christian services.
In 1888 Dr. Swain left Khetri on furlough to return to America to treat her seriously ill sister, but she soon returned. Yet though the work in India often meant isolation Dr. Swain and her associates were sure that God wanted them there. As she wrote at the time: “After eighteen months of the religious life of America and the many precious privileges enjoyed there, it seems harder to settle down to the life here…I have sometimes felt tempted to give up my work here, but then the thought comes to me that I can do more by remaining here ….”
While she was gone, the Rani had given birth to a baby girl who proved delicate, so Clara remained close to the family. Then the birth of a prince in January, 1893 brought rejoicing and many ceremonies as the Rani “acknowledged her thankfulness to God by a donation, in the name of her little son, to Christian work …”
As she ended her service in Khetri in March, 1895 Clara and some associates traveled back to the U.S., touring Israel and Europe on the way, and arrived home in 1896. “No more sea for me!” Dr. Swain replied when asked if she were not tired of travel. However, she did return to India in 1906 to celebrate the anniversary of the Methodist Mission, spending 18 months with old friends and associates.
Upon her return to the U.S. she settled in Castile, New York in 1908 to reside at the Sanitarium where she had once trained. At that time she also began to compile her many letters of her experiences in India into a book and it was published in 1909 as A Glimpse of India.
Dr. Swain passed away at the Sanitarium on Christmas Day, 1910.
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Anne Adams, a retired church staffer, has published in Christian and secular markets for 40 years and currently writes an historical column for her local newspaper.)