Posted by bms_editor at 14:53 on 14th October 2011
Dorothy Grace Medway
14 August 1899 – 4 April 2004
Dorothy Medway, whose life spanned from the 19th to the 21st centuries, spent most of her career in rural India working for the Baptist Missionary Society. Her patients ranged from the poorest of the poor to the wife and daughter of a Maharaja, and she dealt with cases of tetanus, rabies, malaria, and cholera, as well as more routine medicine and surgery.
Born in 1899 in Maldon, Essex, into a family with a strong sense of Christian service, she originally intended to study English literature with a view to teaching, but while still at school she felt the call of God to become a missionary. The Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) advised her that there was a much greater need for doctors, particularly women doctors. She responded positively to this challenge, returning to school to study sciences. This she found difficult - physics needed a resit. She then entered the Royal Free Hospital, London, where she found the surgery exam particularly difficult and failed once. She qualified in 1926 and then worked for five years as an assistant in general practice in Thornton Heath.
In 1931 Dorothy was appointed to the BMS and sailed for India. Her first months were spent in language school, where she became proficient in Urdu. For some years she moved around between BMS hospitals.
In 1940 she settled in Palwal, a small township 40 miles south of Delhi, on the main Delhi to Agra road in a district that was considered one of the poorest in the Punjab. BMS medical work started in Palwal in 1895 in a three-storey building up a steep hill. In 1905 a men's hospital was built on a road outside the town and in 1914 the women's hospital was built further up the same road. A patient gave it the name Rahmatpur or “place of mercy.” It had 42 beds, a theatre, labour ward, dispensary and small laboratory. In 1954 the two hospitals were amalgamated under Dorothy's superintendency and named the Christian General Hospital.
When Dorothy first went to Rahmatpur, Palwal had a population of just over 8,000. In 1947, after Indian independence, Muslims from Palwal were either massacred or fled to Pakistan. Meanwhile, there was an influx of Hindu refugees from Pakistan increasing the population to about 25, 000, and flooding the hospital with women and children ill, injured, and in distress.
At this time there was no running water. Water close to the hospital, indeed in all of Palwal, had a very high content of saltpetre, making it “hard” and sour. It was used for scrubbing floors. Slightly sweeter water (for bathing) came from several miles away, and the sweetest (for drinking) from even further away, brought in daily in milk churns loaded on a horse-drawn cart. Water on tap (just one initially) was not available till 1964 - one year before Dorothy retired. There was no electricity until 1952 and emergency surgery after dark was lit by torches and lamps. Anaesthesia was of the rag and bottle type administered by the pharmacist.
It was against this background that Dorothy Medway carried out her work, treating diseases that were largely associated with poverty, malnutrition, and lack of sanitation. Mothers and newborn babies were frequently brought in with tetanus, because the dais (untrained village midwives) had severed the umbilical cord with a stone picked up from the ground. Infestation with roundworm could be so gross that it caused intestinal obstruction. Accurate diagnosis was essential to avoid surgery. Tuberculosis, always present, spread quickly among the refugees.
In 1956 several things came together. The Christian Hospital obtained its first x-ray equipment. The Indian government, in its five-year plan, sought to eradicate communicable diseases. And the district medical officer sought Dorothy Medway's help. She provided beds in the hospital and nursing care, and received financial help from the government.
In the same year there was also an important development in maternity services - to provide domiciliary midwifery care. The cooperation of the dais was sought and a financial inducement offered. One dai agreed, and gradually others came into the scheme. Alongside this, a baby clinic offered vaccinations, advice, and also a public health programme.
At the same time the Indian government was encouraging the training of young women as nurses with a bias towards midwifery and village work. The Christian Hospital provided such training, with Dorothy doing much of the teaching.
Another aim of Dorothy's was that, on her retirement, Indian doctors should be able to take over. With the help of BMS she arranged postgraduate training in the UK for two doctors, who eventually succeeded her.
In her retirement she returned to the UK and a year later was awarded the MBE. She continued to be active in various ways for many years, much of it in church work. She lived independently in a flat till just after her 100th birthday.
She remained mentally alert to the end and died peacefully in her sleep.
Dorothy Grace Medway, former missionary, India (b 1899; q Royal Free Hospital, London, 1926), d 4 April 2004.