Scattered around Myanmar, India and Pakistan stood a series of hospitals bearing the name of Lady Dufferin, an Anglo-Irish heiress who married, at the age of just 19, a man who became one of Britain's most senior diplomats, governor-general in Canada, and viceroy in India.

So much more than a diplomatic wife, Lady Dufferin left a particular legacy in India through her National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, better known as the Dufferin Fund.

The Dufferins arrived in India as viceroy and vicereine in December 1884, having previously lived in Canada and in St Petersburg, where they witnessed the anarchist terror campaign and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Dufferin quickly established a busy routine in India, taking lessons in Hindustani and in photography, and devoting much time to the establishment and running of her Fund.

Her letters to her mother reveal her appreciation for the extent of the undertaking, and her trepidation on the occasion of the public launch: 'I don’t in the least mind the work, but I sometimes shudder over the publicity and wish it were a quieter little affair.’ She gently but persistently pressed for funds at every opportunity, accepting donations from the Maharajas of Kashmir and Jeypore, holding a sports day and a Jubilee collection that elicited 400 pledges.

Lady Dufferin

The Fund doubtlessly saved lives and achieved its stated aim of alleviating the suffering of Indian women through childbirth and illness. However, it was not immune from criticism. Contemporary campaigners for equality for female doctors highlighted the Fund’s focus on zenana women to the detriment of non-zenana women, particularly lower-caste and working-class Indian women (who could not observe purdah due to the economic necessity of working outside the home).

Zenana women occupied the greater place in the minds of Victorian philanthropists and medical missionaries, who focused on the seclusion that denied them access to doctors and hospitals; Dufferin hospital boards debated issues like enclosing the buildings so that zenana women could move around freely inside without compromising their seclusion by being visible through a window, for example.

Dufferin, during her time in India, remained assured of the necessity of the work by the testimony of Indian leaders who described to her the strict requirements of purdah:

‘in the harems in Scinde not even a man’s picture is admitted, much less a live doctor [...].’

She was disappointed when her husband was recalled to London, and described her tearful leave-taking on the steps of their residence. In 1907, its 23rd year, the Fund had 12 provincial branches, 140 local and district associations, and 260 hospital wards and dispensaries officered by women, who delivered care to over 2 million women and children.

Working for the Fund were 48 ‘lady doctors with British qualifications,’ 90 assistant surgeons, and ‘311 hospital assistants with Indian qualifications.’ Subscriptions and donations in that year, to the UK branch alone, totalled over £4000. The Fund was very popular with colonial administrators, fundraised successfully in both India and the UK, and was popular among the Indian conservative elite.

Another important legacy of Dufferin’s initiative was its role in helping British and Irish women enter the medical profession. Zenana hospitals, for all their ethical problems, were in their early years an important source of employment for British women, who had few other opportunities to practice. The first woman to both train and qualify at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dr Mary Josephine Hannan, worked at the Dufferin Hospitals in Ulwar and Shikarpur in the 1890s.

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by Dr. Angela Byrne