‘One of the great leaders among medical women in India’

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By | From the Collections

Photograph of Margaret Ida Balfour

Margaret Ida Balfour, 1891: PP/MIB/C/6

We were very excited this summer to be alerted to the existence of surviving correspondence of Margaret Ida Balfour (1866-1945), CBE, MD, CM FRCOG, a medical woman who trained at Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women under Sophia Jex-Blake, qualifying in 1891, and worked in India from 1892 until 1933. Although she formally retired from her position as Director of the Women’s Medical Service (a post she was first to hold) in 1924, she continued to return to India for substantial periods of time in connection with research she was conducting with Dr Lucy Wills on tropical anaemias. In 1920 she was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal for Public Service in India. This material was acquired by Archives and Manuscripts and has now been catalogued.

Throughout the period from the 1880s, when she was beginning her medical education, to 1933, Dr Balfour wrote frequently and at length to her family members: primarily her sisters, Janie, Shaddie, Annie and Edith. A very substantial collection of these letters survives, although quite a number are missing odd pages. They provide a valuable and almost unique record of the life of a woman doctor in India at this period. While there is obviously a significant amount of reference to her professional activities, there is also a great deal on the conditions of life generally and they are thus of broader interest than simply the medical. She mentioned current events, including the outbreak of the 3rd Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, though her comments had a medical twist as she remarked

The army is again very short of doctors for this new war and are urgently appealing to us to give them women…. it does provoke me. They give women no official recognition or position, but when they are in need of help in their own services expect them to give it trading on their patriotism

During the First World War she had organised a unit of medical women to replace RAMC officers in war hospitals in Bombay: an experience which may have provoked this outburst.

Balfour was not only a practising doctor, focussing, as was almost universally the case for women medics in India, on questions of maternal and child health, she was also a committed campaigner for women’s medical education and a health administrator. As first woman assistant to the Inspector-General of Hospitals, Punjab, she did a great deal of travelling, reflected in letters addressed as on trains or waiting at stations. She became Secretary of the Countess of Dufferin‘s Fund, established to promote medical education for women in India, and first Chief Officer of the Women’s Medical Service, as well as promoting improvements in midwifery and the development of health visiting.

Group of medical women in India, n.d including M I Balfour (front): PP/MIB/C/6

Group of medical women in India, n.d including M I Balfour (front): PP/MIB/C/6

Over the course of her long career she had contact with many distinguished individuals, who are mentioned in her letters. After qualifying in medicine she spent some while working with Dr Annie McCall at her Clapham Maternity Hospital in South London. In 1917 she met the American medical missionary Dr Ida Scudder of Vellore, who advised Balfour to get inoculated against plague, which was rife in the region at that time. In 1929 she encountered Sir Robert McCarrison. Beyond her medical circles, she met Annie Besant (and attended a lecture by her on Theosophy) and visited the Tagores at Santiniketan, as well as socialising with leading figures in the Imperial administration.

This therefore constitutes an important addition to our existing holdings on Women in Medicine [pdf] and on South Asia [pdf] and should be of great interest to a range of researchers.

Author: Dr Lesley Hall, Senior Archivist

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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