Project Canterbury

Lead, Kindly Light:
Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement

by Desmond Morse-Boycott

transcribed by Mr Robert Stevens
AD 2000


Mary Scharlieb

BORN in London, motherless from birth, this apostolic woman was brought up by devoted relatives, meeting, after leaving boarding-school, a law student of the Middle Temple, Mr. Scharlieb. They married and went to India.

Possessed of a deep sympathy and power of intuition, she was overcome with horror at the sufferings of Hindu and Mohammedan women. She felt a call to help them—a call not at all appreciated by the medical authorities, who did their best to oppose her. But she stood firm, and was finally permitted to work in the Lying-in Hospital in Madras. There, without assistance, and in the teeth of opposition, she began to study for her medical degree. It was the more difficult, too, because she was by this time the mother of three children. Yet, after three years of unceasing labour, in and out of hospital, she received from the Madras College her Licentiate of Medicine, Surgery and Midwifery. She then came to England to take the final M.B. and Bachelor of Surgery degrees; went to Vienna and then back to Madras. There she managed, again in the teeth of opposition, to found a hospital exclusively for caste Hindus and Gosha Mohammedan ladies, of which she took charge.

But she was over-working. Not only had she the hospital, but many duties as a general practitioner, and many lecturings. In 1887 her magnificent career in India came to an end, and she returned to London, with broken health, to win a fresh reputation for selfless devotion. She succeeded Mrs. Garrett Anderson at the New Hospital for Women. In 1902 she became gyn¾cologist to the Royal Free Hospital.

What is so astonishing is that, throughout her arduous life, she was far from robust. There was a radiance in her face, always, as if she had just come from prayer. There is many a woman in London who recalls her with gratitude, for in poor homes the remembrance of a gracious doctor never dies.

I remember vividly how prodigal she was of her valuable time when I needed her advice on one occasion, and how she sought in her shelves for books for me, and let me take them away as if unmindful of the risk of lending books to even the honestest folk! And I remember, too, how she stood at the door when my visit was over, and begged for prayers for a dying daughter.

Such women are the salt of the earth. They contrast in startling manner with others of, perhaps, equal brilliance and personality, who are uninformed by Catholic wisdom and unwarmed by prayer; spending many days in labour for which none rise up to call them blessed. Such are sometimes they who write autobiographies. In such a work I read the other day: . . . in the light of reason and pure logic, a saint is a very tenth-rate human being, and St. Francis as lamentable a failure as the Emperor Nero."

Throughout her long life, consecrated to religious service, she won many battles. To her is due, very largely, the equal status of men and women in the medical profession. It is good to remember that women doctors have this freedom as a result of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, represented by her. She ceaselessly opposed birth prevention, writing helpful books for mothers, letters to the Press, and giving lectures. Oh! that she could have gathered together and corrected those amiable but undiscerning prelates who, at the last Lambeth Conference, dared to trifle with the Church’s moral law, so that now even the clergy find upon their breakfast tables price lists of contraceptives to which their purveyors have attached an episcopal nihil obstat. Gentlest of women, I once heard her say that Dr. Stopes’s books were "pink sugar," and made her "feel soiled" when she read them.

For many years she acted as Hon. Consulting Physician, Vice-President, and Member of the Medical Missions Committee of the S.P.G. A "beloved physician." If St. Peter stands at the golden gates for you and me, St. Luke must have been there for Mary Scharlieb, most splendid of the daughters of the Catholic Revival!

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