Agnes McLaren (4 July 1837 – 17 April 1913) was a respected Scottish doctor who was the first to give medical assistance to women in India who, because of custom, were unable to get medical help from male doctors.
McLaren was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The daughter of Duncan McLaren, a Presbyterian businessman and politician, she entered the school of medicine at the University of Montpellier in 1876, eventually becoming only the tenth woman in Britain to graduate as a doctor. By 1882, she was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and set up a practice in Cannes around 1879.
In 1899 she converted to the Roman Catholic Church, and went to India with a Catholic mission, where she learned of the tremendous health needs of women in India. Because of India’s custom of seclusion for women (purdah), they could not be seen by men other than their immediate family, a custom which meant they also could not receive medical care from male physicians. With so few women doctors in the early 1900s, literally thousands of women died in illness or in childbirth each year and many babies also died in infancy. McLaren responded to this problem by establishing the Medical Mission Committee in London, which financed the opening of a small hospital, St. Catherine’s Hospital, in Rawalpindi, a particularly needy area.
During her search for women who could help run the hospital, McLaren discovered that Catholic Canon Law prohibited Religious Sisters from giving this level of medical care. She petitioned the Holy See to lift the restriction and, while waiting for a response, continued looking for women interested in health care abroad. Anna Maria Dengel, an Austrian, responded to McLaren’s request, but was never able to meet McLaren, who died shortly after their correspondence began. However, before her death, McLaren encouraged Dengel to study medicine at the Cork University, setting into motion Dengel’s becoming a physician and, years later, her starting a new religious congregation, the Medical Mission Sisters. They are a Catholic congregation of Sisters who are trained as doctors and nurses and other forms of healthcare professionals, dedicated to providing healthcare to women and children around the world.
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