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Need For Medical Missions In India

( Originally Published 1913 )

Turning from China, we take up another of the great Mission Fields of the world, and prosecute an inquiry into the need of for Medical Missions. Here we touch British territory, and are reminded at the outset of the large and beneficient efforts put forth by the Indian Government in seeking to confer medical benefits upon the people of that great Dependency. Nothing but praise and admiration can be given for what has thus been done. Would that all governments, who are called to rule subject races, recognised a like responsibility in the pro-vision of healing for the sick. But when all that has been said the sorrowful fact remains that this medical work of the Indian Government is only meeting the needs of a percentage, and that not a high one, of the population of the Empire. Some years ago it was estimated by Sir William Moore that " not five per cent. of the population is reached by the present system of medical aid." Hidden away in densely populated village areas, living their separate existences remote from the touch of western civilisation, and only here and there coming within the range of some government hospital or dispensary, these, our fellow subjects of the British Crown, present a field that is, as we shall see later, full of the most crying need for Medical

Missions. It was recently stated by Dr W. J. Wanless, of India, in the " International Review of Missions," that " in Calcutta, the largest medical centre in India, 6000 persons die annually without medical relief " ; and that " ninety out of every hundred who die in the smaller villages of India (and India is a nation of villages) die unattended by a qualified, or even a partially qualified, physician." It is not that the Indian Government is insensitive to the necessity for Medical help ; it is rather that the need is so tremendous and extensive that there is a call of the greatest urgency for all the additional help that Medical Missions can afford.

This call comes to us first of all because of the extra-ordinary ignorance that is everywhere met with in regard to the cause of sickness, an ignorance that is saturated through and through with dense superstition. To the Hindu, the presence of disease means that some god has been offended, and that the only way whereby a cure can be affected lies in propitiating the deity. Or again, as in China, the cause is attributed to some evil spirit which has taken possession of the patient, and which consequently renders the sufferer an object of dread and the subject of neglect rather than of care. When in India some years ago the author well re-members being shewn coloured stones and other objects that were worshipped in villages as the " Gods of sickness." One of the most widely worshipped female deities is the goddess of smallpox, which is addressed commonly as " Mother." Some years ago, during an epidemic of the disease, it was said that the goddess had a thorn in her toe, and until it was out the epidemic would not be stayed ! To propitiate her wrath and hasten the cure, offerings must be made at her shrines, and processions held in her honour, in which, alas, patients are often carried !

The old time native doctors or "hakims" still carry on their ignorant and nefarious work amongst the credulous and suffering people. These men are, it is needless to say, quite untrained, and though at times they may have some knowledge of useful herbal medicines, yet as a whole their practice is sheer quackery, mingled with the grossest superstition. In many cases the " profession descends " from father to son, and a common proverb amongst the people runs, " He who has killed a thousand people is only half a doctor." Charms form a large part of their stock-in-trade, and to repeat extracts from their sacred books for the relief of a sick person is again and again their practice. For pain in the back from all causes, the following " prescription," cited by Miss Barnes in " Between Life and Death," will give a concise idea of the absurdities of this native treatment-" Take two rice poles, and stand in the middle of the bazaar ; hold the poles at arm's length, then slowly bring them together in front, but do not knock the ends. The native doctor will then squeeze some green juice on the pole and murmur an incantation, after which, at a given signal, the poles are to be knocked together." The only addition to this caricature of treatment that need be noted is that at its close the " doctor " takes his fee and departs !

Dr Vincent Thomas of Palwal, N. India, relates how on one occasion he was called to attend a poor young fellow who was sick in a village some miles from his station. Upon arrival Dr Thomas found that the patient had been ill for some days, and that he was suffering from pneumonia. Asking why he had not been sent for sooner, he was told that they had called in first of all a native sorcerer, who said the cause of the illness was a devil in the liver ! Then a native hakim had been called, and his treatment resolved itself into the application of bullocks' horns, being a form of native cupping, to the soles of the feet. Is it any wonder that when Dr Thomas arrived the patient " had one foot in the grave already " ? Happily the life was saved, but not thanks to the native treatment.

Very frequently, however, the poor patients are submitted to far worse measures than those which have been illustrated above. Dr Elsie Watts wrote a few years ago that " the only idea of treatment for any internal disease that the native doctor has is to put hot irons on the outside and make a sore place on the skin." Can we imagine what suffering this must entail, especially when it is done to little children ? In " The Healing of the Nations " (Dr Rutter Williamson) it is stated that a native treatment for infantile convulsions is to place a red-hot iron to the spot on the child's head where the pulsations can be seen, leading, as it must do, to the destruction of all the scalp tissues. The reason given for this barbarous practice is that an evil spirit enters here and must be destroyed if death is to be prevented. The author himself, during a brief tour in India, saw sad evidences of this unjustifiable use of the actual cautery.

As in China, so in India, one of the most prevalent forms of disease is that of the eye, and some very terrible examples of cruel and ignorant treatment have been recorded. Dr Vincent Thomas tells how there once came to his dispensary a man hopelessly blind in one eye, whose history disclosed the fact that what had been a simple inflammation had been treated by such vigorous counter-irritation to the temple that a ruinous and destructive inflammation had developed, leading to absolute loss of sight. Another instance that the same Medical Missionary reports is that of a young child brought to him for eye trouble. The poor mother, following the native treatment, had applied to each eye a paste made of lamp black, glue and another unmentionable substance. The result of this was total disorganisation of the eyeballs and hopeless blindness. In " Between Life and Death," Miss Irene Barnes gives a further fearful illustration of a native treatment for cataract. A woman patient came into a mission hospital, and gave the story that a few years before, when nearly blind, she had placed herself under the care of a " hakim," and to pay his fee had pawned her cooking vessels. He then had thrust a red-hot needle into the eyeball, dislocating the opaque lens, and occasioning not only intense pain, but permanent blindness ! With what a shudder does the heart recoil from the thought of the sufferings of that poor woman.

And as may have been already gathered, it is the women who often suffer most and worst. In the seclusion of their zenanas, with only ignorant and low-caste women to attend to them in their hour of need, they suffer and die under fearful wrongs that are too harrowing to describe. Our lady Medical Missionaries, who are often called to render help in these sad cases, have stories to give of the most frightful practices. The best that can be said is often that neglect forms the major element in the treatment. Is it any wonder that there is such a high maternal and infantile mortality in India ? We ask again as the pen grows weary of chronicling this almost unending catalogue of needs and woes—Is there then no need for Medical Missions ?



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