Reposted from Once Upon a Time in Needham.
As a writer, I’m always looking for a good story. So you can imagine my excitement when I came across a photograph of a turbanned man on a camel in our church archives one afternoon. What was that doing there?
The photograph was part of a collection of letters from a Dr. Margaret O’Hara, a Presbyterian medical missionary from Canada who spent decades working in India. Like most missionaries today, Dr. O’Hara appealed far and wide for the funds to support her missions. The letters and photographs were sent to our little church in Needham, Massachusetts as part of this never-ending campaign.
Straight-forward enough, but still, Dr. O’Hara was practicing medicine at a time when relatively few women did.
As late as 1874, no women were knowingly licensed to practice medicine in Canada at all. I say knowingly, because according to Carlotta Hacker’s book The Indomitable Lady Doctors, Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry began practicing medicine in Canada as early as 1816, but he presented as a man for the entirety of his professional medical career.
As you can imagine, it caused quite a scandal when on Dr. Barry’s death in 1865 his superiors in the British Army discovered that the feisty Dr. James Barry they had promoted to be their top medical officer in Canada had been born Margaret Ann Bulkley. Despite the hubbub, and despite the gender listed on his birth certificate, Dr. James Barry’s death certificate lists this brilliant surgeon as male.
By the time Dr. Margaret O’Hara received her medical degree from Queens University in 1891, it was more common for women to work in medicine. Still, earning a medical degree and spending 36 years serving as a medical missionary in Central India seemed like a remarkable choice for a woman born on a farm in Lanark County, Ontario. I wanted to know more about her.
During her time in India, Dr. O’Hara ran a home for children orphaned by famine, tested treatments for leprosy, and operated on patients without trained assistants or medical equipment. Dr. O’Hara also ran a school for the children in her orphanage, many of whom went on to become nurses, teachers, medical students, and preachers.
Service in a time of famine
To raise the funds to support her orphanage, school, and hospital, Dr. O’Hara traveled widely throughout the United States and Canada, giving lectures in which she described her experiences in the field. She also wrote several articles for journals, including a 1911 article for the Medical Missionary, in which Dr. O’Hara describes her work during the first of the two famines that struck India during her time there. In the article, she describes both the devastating impact of the famine and the way in which the notion of caste complicated her mission:
“Never did I see caste as I saw it in famine time. I have seen people dying for want of water or of bread, who would absolutely refuse to take it unless given to them by some higher caste person. … Day after day I looked after between 800 and 1,000 people. They would not take food from my hand; they would die first. I had to hire Brahmin people to distribute this food; and I had to see that they did not run away with it.”
Dr. O’Hara writes that during the famine, so many people died of hunger that vast sections of the countryside were turned into ghost towns.
“… sweeper men, the lowest caste of all, made a great harvest that year, because they were paid eight annas, about fifteen cents, to carry away each body. They carried them to the burning place, where the fires never went out. Day and night bodies were being burned. In our own city the population went down from 25,000 to 15,000 at the time of that famine. And in the poor Bhil country the population went down until the governor said it looked like a deserted land…”
From our perspective, offering your starving neighbor food and shelter in time of famine is an obviously kind thing to do. But as Dr. O’Hara writes, the notions of caste greatly complicated even this simple act of mercy.
“I used to go out with a buggy in the early morning and pick up little babies that had been deserted and were lying without a stitch of clothes or any flesh on their bones… Several of our missionaries did the same thing. And when the famine was over, I had 150 girls on my hands, several widows; and of the boys, I do not know how many there were. Then the question was, what to do with these children. After they came to us, of course, they became outcasts. They had eaten our food, and we had cared for them, and while you would think it was a very good thing for us to rescue these people and keep them from starving, the Hindu people would rather have seen them die than have us take them.”
Dr. O’Hara included several photographs with her letters, including this one of her students at the missionary school.
The inscription on the back reads:
“Some of the children I teach in school every day. The big girl with hand over her mouth is splendid at long division & never has 1 mistake in dictation. The girls on either side of her are the daughters of the ch. caretaker – a man who has no sons & threatened to take another wife if he had no son. He is a very poor sort of a Xian. His eldest girl (Esther) is a very good clever girl the other one is a very original character & the little girl on extreme left is our house-boys daughter and the one extreme left is preacher’s daughter but very naked – the boy above her head is Stephen – whose father threatened to go back to Muhammadanism but has not. I made the jacket the big boy is wearing. He looks sulky.”
So how did these letters and photographs end up in our archives?
Dr. O’Hara’s connection with the Congregational Church of Needham comes through Miss Grace Snow, a prominent member of the Friendly Society around WWI. Although the archives only include a few letters from Dr. O’Hara to Miss Snow, it seems that Miss Snow took up several collections to support the care and education of Mina Sukha, one of the children at Dr. O’Hara’s school.
In a 1916 letter, Dr. O’Hara describes Mina as “growing fast. I think she is between twelve & thirteen years of age. She likes running about better than study, but she is a good girl.”
- As our church’s support was focused on Mina’s care and education, most of the photographs in our collection are of Mina. Here she is with Dr. O’Hara and several of her fellow students in 1917.
- The accompanying letter from Dr. O’Hara, dated April 20, 1917, includes a vivid description of Mina:
“We had a severe epidemic of plague here this year . Four Christian children died from it – Two of them from the orphanage, but Mina was spared and so was so helpful looking after the others and the hens – I have given the girls hens to care for to train them, and also develop a love for birds. They also have two [illegible] parrots. They had ducks too but these have all died. During the plague the city was empty and starving dogs made havoc among the chickens, one alone eating 26 chickens while we were in the service one evening.
Mina is full of life and spirits. She can climb a tree like a boy. She gets on fairly well in school, but is not very strong in Arithmetic. I have not got a letter from her this time, but shall get her to write before long. Miss Herdman has sailed for home. She will tell you many things about Mina and the other girls.”
Our church’s support appears to have ended upon Mina’s marriage in 1919, but Dr. O’Hara’s work in India continued until 1927. During her time in India, Dr. O’Hara developed a close relationship with the Dhar royal family, which explains the photograph of the turbanned messenger that originally caught my attention.
Dr. O’Hara returned to Canada in 1927. Four years later, she published Leaf of the Lotus, a collection of her letters from the field written between 1891 and 1914. In 1932, the British monarch awarded her a silver Kaisar-i-Hind medal for her work in India. That same year, she received an honorary degree from Queen’s University.
Margaret O’Hara died in Canada in 1940 at the age of 85.