Posts Tagged ‘Clara Swain’

Significant Nineteenth Century Christian Women

For the last few months I have posted stories on significant women from the nineteenth century. Many thousands of people were helped by their work. Untold thousands today are still benefitting from the organizations or movements founded by these women.

Relive the fascinating lives of Dorothea Dix, Mary Lyon, and Clara Swain through these biographies and their personal writings.


—  Lightner, David L., Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois, (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1999).

Dorothea DixThough little recognized today for her tremendous work of reform, Dorothea Dix was one of the most famous women of her time. In this first of two books that I recommend you will find accounts, written by Dorothea herself, of what the living conditions were like for the insane, prisoners, and the poor. Many documents that are reprinted by the author recount her efforts to get the laws changed in order to provide more compassionate treatment for the insane.

This book focuses on these documents and their significance. One example of a document is a “Memorial” that she presented to the legislature of Massachusetts asking that the budget be increased to include money to improve the State Mental Hospital at Worcester. Many improvements were made in the state hospitals and prisons thanks to Dorothea. She continued traveling to many states seeking similar changes.

While the author concentrates on his home state of Illinois, he gives a fine account of Dorothea’s life and accomplishments. The last chapters recount the Dorothea’s tremendous legacy – hundreds of thousands of people down through the years have benefitted from the reforms that she initiated.


Colman, Penny, Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix, (ASJA Press, New York, 2007).

Those looking for a biography that is more “story-like” will enjoy this book. Penny Colman is a fine author of many books. She relates Dorothea’s childhood and early life and how they contributed to the campaign that Dorothea went on at nearly forty years of age. You will be impressed as you learn more about the personal fortitude and courage of Dorothea Dix. It never ceases to amaze me how just one person can make such a difference! Dorothea Dix is especially extraordinary because she was only a “retired school teacher in frail health without wealth or power to support her cause” (Page 55).

Dorothea Dix contributed her efforts to reforming the treatment of the mentally ill who were often housed in prisons in horrible conditions. Dorothea did this by changing the way people thought about mental illness. “It is time that people should have learnt that to be insane is not to be disgraced; that sickness is not to be ranked with crime; and that mental disability is almost invariably the result of mere bodily ailment” (Page 73). Today we take it for granted that mental illness is not a crime. It’s hard to imagine how people thought that it was in the nineteenth century. Dorothea called for Christians to care for the poor as the Savior did. Her campaign resulted in the building of 32 institutions in the United States where the mentally ill could be cared for in a more compassionate way.


Green, Elizabeth Alden, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates, (University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1979).

This book is about another obscure, young, penniless teacher from the early nineteenth Mary Lyoncentury whose life made a difference to thousands. Mary Lyon believed that women should be able to get a college education. In 1837 this was an unpopular idea. In the early eighteen hundred’s it was thought that only men should get an education; it was thought to be wasted on women. Some said that it was impractical, unwise and even unchristian.

Mary Lyon believed that women should honor God with their gifts of intelligence. Mary struggled for three years raising the money for her institution of higher education for women. She set out mostly on foot going door-to-door to raise the $30,000 needed to open her school. She appealed for donations in the name of religion and based on the principle that education of the daughters of the Church called as rightfully for the free gifts of the Church as does that of her sons.

Man people agreed with her and in spite of so many others who discouraged or disdained her efforts Mary raised the money. Male town officials in Hadley, Massachusetts donated $8,000 and so the site for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was located there.

Elizabeth Green tells the exciting account of Mary’s life and her accomplishments. Her girl’s school set the standard of quality education for years to come.


Hartley, James E., Mary Lyon: Documents & Writings, (Doorlight Publications, South Hadley, MA, 2008)

After reading Elizabeth Green’s biography of Mary Lyon I couldn’t wait to read a book containing her letters and other writings. James Hartley put this compendium together in such a way as to allow readers to get a glimpse of Mary’s life and trials through her writing.

Hartley gives credit not only to Elizabeth Green but also to Edward Hitchcock. Edward Hitchcock was one man who supported Mary Lyon. He was the president of Amherst College in the early 1800’s and a friend and mentor of Mary. After her death he collected her letters to use in a biography. Praise God that he did because over time many of her letters were lost and we would not have such a remarkable account of one of the most important women of the early nineteenth century without his collection.

Mary was very modest and would not let anyone even think of naming the seminary after her. Mary’s missionary fervor was genuine. She believed that the income from Mount Holyoke belonged to the Lord. She only accepted a modest salary. She gave much of that meagre income to the poor and left her personal property to the American Board of Foreign Missions when she died. The school itself contributed nearly seven thousand dollars to foreign missions in the last seven years that Mary was there.

Her fervor was caught by her students. Over the twelve years Mary directed the school, hundreds of women became missionaries, teachers or wives of missionaries. Twelve students went on to take the Gospel to the Indians in the western United States. Scores of pastor’s wives were trained at Mount Holyoke.

Women owe Mary Lyon a big thank you for stepping out and founding a female seminary.


Swain, Clara A., A Glimpse of India, (James Pott & Company, New York, 1909). (My copy is a reprint from: Classic Reprint Series, “Forgotten Books”, London, 2015).

Clara_SwainClara A. Swain was also a first among women in the nineteenth century. Clara Swain has the honor of being the first fully accredited missionary sent out by a Christian organization and the first woman physician in India. Clara also had the privilege of “standing before kings” when as a woman she was allowed to be the palace physician for an Indian Rajah’s family.

Upon arriving in Bareilly, India, Clara wasted no time but started a dispensary immediately. As the only women doctor within a 200-mile radius she was soon busy making over 250 house calls in her first year and treating 1000 patients.

This book is a collection of her letters that give us a wonderful idea of what it was like to be a doctor in India in 1870. Clara’s letters to her family and friends back home were detailed and colorfully written. In them we follow her progress as she opened hospitals, nursing schools, and dispensaries. She also led Bible studies and taught the women to sing Christian hymns.

Clara was as tireless in her devotion to her work as Dorothea Dix and Mary Lyon. Like Dorothea and May, Clara has many thousands of spiritual children on earth and in Heaven.






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Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.  (Matthew 4:23)

Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings. (Proverbs 22:29)

Medical missionaries often have more opportunities to share the Gospel than ordinary preachers or church planters. By offering medical aid especially to people who might not otherwise get it, the medical missionary is in a position to share the love of Christ in a physical and spiritual way. There are many stories about the healing of helpless poor or of a leader’s wife or child by a missionary that opened the door to the Gospel.

Certainly in the nineteenth century this was especially true in third world countries. In rural areas doctors could be literally hundreds of miles away. Medical missionaries set up clinics, dispensaries, nursing schools, and hospitals within reach of the ordinary people. On occasion God would call the medical missionary to the aid of a wealthy leader where they had the rare privilege of “standing before kings”.

One fine example of this is Dr. Clara Swain. Clara Swain has the honor of being the first fully accredited missionary sent out Clara_Swainby a Christian organization and the first woman physician in India. Clara also had the privilege of “standing before kings” when as a woman she was allowed to be the palace physician for an Indian Rajah’s family.

Clara was born in Elmira, New York in 1834. She was the youngest of John and Clarissa Swain’s ten children. When she was eight, Clara’s family moved to beautiful Castile, Wyoming County, N. Y., which was her home for the rest of her life.

Clara was self-educated and like many women of her time began her career with teaching. She did not really like teaching and longed to be a doctor. She got her chance when Dr. Cordelia Greene invited her to train at the Castile Sanitarium. Three years later she was admitted to the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She completed her course in 1869. From early childhood Clara had also wanted to be a missionary. Very soon after her graduation this desire was fulfilled.

Mrs. D. W. Thomas, who had been the head of a girl’s orphanage in Bareilly, North India, saw the need for a female physician and appealed to the Woman’s Union Missionary Society to send someone if possible. Indian women were not allowed to be seen by male doctors and in any event the closest doctors were often many miles away.

The Woman’s Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church passed on the request for a medical missionary to Clara and Clara considered it with much prayer for three months. Then she decided on going. She got her things together quickly and left on November 3, 1869, arriving in Bareilly on January 20, 1870. She was welcomed enthusiastically and began treating girls even before her trunks with her medical supplies arrived.

Clara wasted no time. She started teaching classes in anatomy, physiology, and nursing to fourteen girls and three married women. She established a dispensary and began making plans for a much needed hospital.

Before the hospital could be built Clara had to house a few patients in the missionary house or visit the patients in their homes. This was time consuming and not really practical for people who needed more intensive care. In the first year of her ministrations Clara still managed to treat more than 1000 patients in the mission house and make over 250 home visits in the city and surrounding villages. Clara was the only female doctor within hundreds of miles. She welcomed each opportunity to share the Gospel as she was treating her patients. She made the long visits count by reading from the Bible in Hindustani and telling about the Great Physician, Jesus.

The ideal spot for the hospital was the land next to the mission. It was owned by a Mohammedan prince. He had sworn that he would resist the Western culture and especially the missionaries. Clara prayed and went to visit him to ask for just one acre to build a hospital for women and children. She was overwhelmed with gratitude when he gave her not just one acre but forty and an older house to use for the hospital! Clara wrote of her thankfulness later, “We were unprepared for so generous a gift… and were not a little surprised at the Nawab’s immediate and hearty reception of our request, and we accepted the gift with gratitude not to this prince alone, but to the King of the Universe, who, we believe, put it into his heart to give it to us.”

Repairs were made to the house and the first women’s hospital of its kind in all of Asia opened on January 1, 1874. This was aclara swain hospital wonderful day for the women in India. Many came and received such good treatment that they would often ask if they could stay longer either at the hospital or at the mission house.

In addition to her medical work Clara held meetings on the Sabbath where she taught from the Bible. When the hospital dispensary was opened the prescriptions had Bible verses printed on each one in three different languages so that each woman could receive some word about the great Healer of souls.

In 1875 after six years of relentless work Clara was very worn out. She went home to America for a rest. After three years, in spite of urging from her family to stay home, she returned to India to work with her beloved women and girls. Thanks to the women she had trained as nurses as well as the opening of the hospital, by 1883 over 8000 patients were being treated.

Again Clara’s devotion to her work took a toll on her health. When she received a summons from a native prince, the Rajah of Khetri to come and help his ailing wife, she decided to accept it. Clara took a Christian teacher with her and moved to Khetri where she became the palace physician to care for the women and children.

The prince and his wife, the rani, had only one child, a little girl. Though the rani was Hindu she and Clara would read the Bible together. They grew close. We do not know whether or not the rani or her daughter ever accepted Christ, but they studied together and even sang Christian hymns for many years.

Clara was permitted to open a school for girls. The rani and her royal court women were allowed to attend as well. Clara wrote later, “We brought a quantity of religious books, parts of the Bible, and our hymn books, all in the Hindustani language, and as we have opportunity we distribute them. I suppose there are more than thirty persons singing our hymns here already, for we have taught them to every one who would learn. … What an opportunity for good this is! For some of their songs are very vulgar, and we would not think of listening to them. Our hymns reach every woman in the palace, and they are sometimes sung to his highness. We often find that we can sing Christianity to these people when we cannot preach it. This is an opportunity such as not one of our missionaries has had before, of carrying the Gospel in to the very heart of native royalty.” What a blessing from an all-wise God.

Clara Swain - 1906

Clara Swain – 1906

By 1896 Clara was again worn out and needed to return to America to restore her health. She was saddened to have to leave India; she considered India to be her real home. She spent her final years at her beautiful home in Castile, N.Y. where she died in December, 1910.

Truly this remarkable woman followed Christ as she went about teaching the Gospel and healing many.





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