Obstetrics as part of Missionary Work in Latin America

by Alice Fagan

The Centre for Research Collections has recently begun cataloguing a series of periodicals from The Regions Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU). These texts summarise the Union’s work in Africa, India, Polynesia, China and Central and South America in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, our current work has focused on the missionary practices applied in Latin America. The following blog post will discuss articles on missionary obstetricians featured in the 1906 periodical (ref. CSWC 51/23/3/9).

The RBMU periodicals feature a range of articles, covering the training of missionaries in England, recommended texts, prevalent issues in missionary areas and accounts from missionaries in the field. These articles are intended to be read by RBMU supporters, encouraging them to donate or enroll in training, as well as to become missionaries. The periodicals give significant historical and geographical information on the countries in which missionaries were stationed, particularly the “Neglected Continent” Latin America. Many of the articles on Latin America discuss the difficulties faced by missionaries, for example clashes with Roman Catholics or the impact of political instability. The articles in the 1906 edition on missionary obstetricians focus on the poor conditions in which the patients live and how this inhibits the role of the nurses.

The principal article on obstetrics is titled Cuzco Women’s Wrongs and was written by obstetric nurse Mrs McNairn.[1] The title is somewhat misleading, as the article highlights the needs of the women McNairn is treating, it appears their “Wrongs” are the poor conditions in which they live. She describes how her mission training at Doric Lodge, the RBMU training school, was supplemented by a full obstetrical course (fig. 1 shows Mrs McNairn with two other Regions Beyond nurses). This shows that the Union were keen to provide medical support as part of their missionary work. In Mrs McNairn’s case her husband was also a missionary and so they both travelled out to Cuzco together. He worked as a minister whilst she tended to the health of his (potential) congregation.

Figure 1: Portrait photographs of three nurses, including Mrs McNairn, p241  (CSWC 51/23/3/9)

Mrs McNairn describes how the obstetric nurses in Peru were sought out by the “well-to-do” in Peruvian society who believed English medical care to be more reliable. However, the article focuses more on the poorer women McNairn has treated herself. She was very concerned that many of these mothers are young teenagers that were unable to properly care for their children. She describes three cases where women have died or been close to death due to poor conditions or a lack of nearby hospitals. McNairn recalls the case of a woman she visited in a “Indian Tambo” (Inn) who was in labour and required surgery (fig. 2). She describes the Tambo as dirty and uncomfortable with “hens and guinea pigs running about the floor”.[2] The unsanitary room and the lack of clean water led to McNairn recommending she be taken to hospital. However, the hospital was two miles away and, due to a lack of ambulances, she had to be carried there by her family on a blanket. McNairn believed that this arduous journey unnecessarily led to the woman’s passing. It seems that the lack of established medical facilities in Peru at this time made it very difficult for nurses to apply the training they had received in England.

Figure 2: An Image of a Cuzco House similar to those that McNairn was working in. p239 (CSWC 51/23/3/9)

According to McNairn’s account it seemed missionary obstetricians in Cuzco were in high demand in this period and treated very high numbers of women. Though she was frustrated that the poor conditions led to preventable deaths, the care provided by missionary nurses would have exceeded any medical treatment typically available to poorer women. McNairn describes the gratitude of her patients and how she “always gets a warm welcome back into their homes”.

The importance of obstetric care to the missionary cause is stressed by Mrs McNairn. She believed that her home visits were “almost the only way to reach [native] women’s hearts”. The childbed has offered a woman-only space in many cultures throughout history, and this has been observed by McNairn as an important tool for missionaries. She describes the native women in Peru as confined to their houses, and so through offering treatment she was able to form personal connections to individuals who may not otherwise access ministry. Though McNairn is sympathetic, to a certain extent she blames the poor conditions in which the expectant mothers live as “misery of their own making”.[3] She strongly believed that conversion to Christianity was the best way to help the native people make “their home-life all it should be”.[4] Her medical work certainly seems to have helped the community, but this article makes it clear that Mrs McNairn was not impressed by the Peruvian way of life.

This article was intended to encourage patrons to fund improved medical facilities and greater numbers of practitioners in Peru. This shows that in some situations missionary organisations put the support of native communities and saving lives first and conversion second. Nursing, including obstetrics, was clearly considered an important skill for many missionary women. As McNairn’s account shows, it offered an opportunity for missionaries to connect with women face to face and build a personal relationship. However, as a researcher we must acknowledge that the central aim was always conversion and aspects of McNairn’s account speak to a colonial mindset within the Union.

(Source: Regions Beyond, 1906, CSWC 51/23/3/9, Cuzco Women’s Wrongs, pp. 237 – 241)


[1] Mrs McNairn, “Cuzco Women’s Wrongs”, in H. Grattan Guinness, Regions Beyond, (S. W. Partridge & Co: London, 1906), pp. 237 – 241

[2] McNairn, “Cuzco Women’s Wrongs”, p. 239

[3] Ibid, p. 237

[4] Ibid

Memory and Mission in Peru

by Savannah Weiler

As I was going through the financial records for the Regions Beyond Missionary union, which includes records for the RBMU run Evangelical Hospital at Lamas, Peru, an internet search of the Evangelical Hospital of Lamas led me to a Facebook group called Bienvenido a Lamas. Posted on here are some wonderful photographs from the 1950s and 60s submitted by one of Lamas’s residents of the mission post of the Peruvian Inland Mission (PIM), later the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU).

These images mostly show snapshots of everyday life at Lamas – sports matches, dinners, and weddings, amongst others. There are also some photographs of the old Evangelical Hospital and its staff, which is what originally led me to finding this page. Many people have commented under these photos, identifying the people, pets and horses shown in the photos. I recognise many of these names, as they have come up in the files I have catalogued so far. Take for example, this photograph, posted to Bienvenido a Lamas:

Figure 1 Bienvenido a Lamas. Facebook, June 11, 2020.
https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3163945540310697&set=a.3163945280310723

Link to original post: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3163945540310697&set=a.3163945280310723

The many comments under this photograph say that this is a photograph of Vicente Coral, who, according to a commenter under the photo, went to study theology at the Costa Rica Bible Institute. My first blogpost on some index cards amongst the contents of one of the earlier files relating to the PIM includes a photograph of A.G Soper with some students who went to the Costa Rica Bible Institute with her. The caption to this photograph identifies one of the young men on this photograph as Señor V. Coral! Coral also has his own index card and is mentioned many times amongst the meeting minutes of the PIM or was himself present at these meetings.

Figure 2 Photograph taken at the Costa Rica Bible Institute showing Miss Soper, Senor V. Coral, Don Alejandro Castillo, Don Hildebrando Tello, Señora Hortensia de Pina and Señorita Rosa Portacarrero.
CSWC 33/39/3, Archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh.

Hildebrando Tello is also amongst the group photographed at the Costa Rica Bible Institute. A photo posted to the Lamas Facebook group shows him, identified as ‘pastor Hildebrando Tello’ with his students at the Lamas Bible College.

Figure 3 Bienvenido a Lamas. “alumnos del estudio biblico.” Facebook, June 11, 2020.
https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3163947886977129&set=a.3163945280310723

Link to original post: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3163947886977129&set=a.3163945280310723

Many other names of missionaries identified by the commenters under the photos are mentioned amongst the records of the PIM in the index cards. One of the index cards I came across while writing the first blogpost notes the details of a Megan Jones. A photo on the Lamas Facebook page shows a ‘Dra Miss Megan’ smiling next to ‘Miss Pat’. The names Megan Jones and Patricia Greening frequently feature in the financial records receiving donations for their work at the hospital in Lamas. Commenters under the photos on Facebook share memories of their childhoods at the missionary schools or hospital in Lamas, some even sharing that they were born at the missionary hospital.

Figure 4 Figure 3 Bienvenido a Lamas. “1959, en la mision en Lamas, Miss Pat y Miss Megan, la enfermera doctora.” Facebook, June 14, 2020.
https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3175135389191712&set=a.3163945280310723

Link to original post: https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=3175135389191712&set=a.3163945280310723

Seeing these photos and the comments on social media brings these stories closer to the present, and helps create perspective on the establishment and development of the mission. The memories shared in the comments under these photos on Facebook adds so much more meaning and depth to the images, as well as to the materials housed in Edinburgh, such as the photo of Vicente Coral, Hildebrando Teller and Miss Soper at the Costa Rica Bible Institute. When I showed these photos to Kirsty Stewart, the archivist helping me as an intern, she commented how seeing these photos reminded her of the importance of the work we are doing. Making the collections housed at the University’s archives accessible to researchers around the world is so important, because this history pertains to many more people than those with physical access to the collections. Cataloguing and digitising these resources makes them accessible to the people in Lamas who have shared their own memories and photographs of the mission online with us. We hold a part of history in our archives that was experienced by many people around the globe. As such, our resources and records deserve to be shared, including with the relatives of the those featuring in the photos posted on Bienvenido a Lamas and in the archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh.

Index Cards of the Peruvian Inland Mission

by Savannah Weiler

The Peruvian Inland Mission (PIM) was founded by Miss Annie G. Soper in 1930 and was active in the area around Lamas, northern Peru until 1948. Index cards form part of the large collection of records of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (ref. CSWC 33/39/3), which took over operation of the Peruvian Inland Mission. Members of the mission had taken the care to note down on small cards the details of missionaries who came to work for the mission, people they met in Peru, new converts, as well as villages in the area where the mission had spread to. These cards give a quick overview of decades worth of missionary activity in this part of Peru and give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those involved with the PIM.

There are cards for Lamas and other places in the north of Peru, such as Moyobamba and Iquitos, as well as for Lima. Each card details the activities of the mission in these areas, such as new buildings constructed, amount of converts through the mission, and sometimes the religions of those living in these areas. The card for Lamas (see figure 1), where the mission was based, shows that they built a school, hospital, a Bible School, and a Church. The area they operated in is quite expansive and is highlighted by these index cards. Reading through letters, meeting minutes and journal articles that form part of the PIM’s records, it becomes clear what difficulties individuals faced when travelling in this area, with travel between villages sometimes taking days due to poor infrastructure and frequent rainstorms. The cards tell us where each missionary was stationed and provide details about the important journeys they made, showing the determination of these individuals to carry out their work.

Figure 1, Some of the index cards giving information on missionaries in the field. Ca. 1930-1950.

CSWC 33/39/3, Archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh

Individual cards documenting Peruvians the missionaries met further show how far the mission spanned and the network the PIM formed with other missions and institutions. People travelled as far as the Costa Rica Bible Institute and the United Kingdom to further their education once they had completed their initial training at schools built by the mission. Martina is one of the girls who grew up in the mission (see figure 2). Her cards note that she travelled to Edinburgh and England to further her education and then returned to Lima, where she trained as a nurse. Details are given on her family and how far she travelled, and give a glimpse into what she was like, quoting her ‘rebellious spirit’ and ‘nursing gifts’. We also come to hear more unfortunate stories, such as when she lost nearly all her belongings to the disastrous 1940 Lima earthquake. The next card gives details of her brother, and through this we come to know an entire family.

Figure 2, Martina’s index card and the card for Lamas, giving details on the progress of the mission there and key people and dates involved.

CSWC 33/39/3, Archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh.

A photograph (see figure 3), taken at the Costa Rica Bible Institute shows Miss Soper and five of her students, who travelled with her from Lamas to Costa Rica to complete their missionary education there. The photo lists the names of these people, who also have their own index cards that give us details of their personalities, education, and life. This photo helps attach faces to names and gives an even more colourful idea of what life was like for those at the Lamas mission, and the impact the PIM had on various peoples’ lives.

Figure 3, Photograph taken at the Costa Rica Bible Institute showing Miss Soper, Senor V. Coral, Don Alejandro Castillo, Don Hildebrando Tello, Señora Hortensia de Pina and Señorita Rosa Portacarrero.

CSWC 33/39/3, Archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh.

These cards are a wonderful summary of documents that would take hours to read through to get the same detailed information. They show the dedication of many of the missionaries involved with the PIM, travelling long distances between various villages just to spend a few days in each, and facing other obstacles along the way too. The cards show the reach of the mission in Peru, and its wider networks in Latin America and Britain. Lastly, reading these cards gives an intimate view of what life was like for the people involved with the mission. We are granted insight into their personalities as well as a snapshot of the highs and lows they faced in life. The photograph of Miss Soper and her students adds even more colour to the stories of those we have got to know in the index cards.

Latin American collections

Since January two students have been working at the Centre for Research Collections at the Main Library of the University of Edinburgh cataloguing the rich archives of the Regions Beyond Missionary Union (RBMU). Alice Fagan and Savannah Weiler are looking at the records of the RBMU in Latin America, especially in Peru and Argentina. They are working under the leadership and supervision of Kirsty Stewart, Scottish and University Collections archivist responsible for the Centre for the Study of World Christianity (CSWC) archives. The bulk of the material they are cataloguing consists of monthly magazines, annual reports, news bulletins, correspondence, minute books, reports, and photographs, in both printed and manuscript form. Funds for this project have been provided by the CSWC and the University, and their work will enhance the visibility of the archival collections and provide crucial information for future digitisation work.

The first impetus behind the RBMU was Henry Grattan Guinness (1835-1910), an Irish revivalist preacher and evangelist and grandson of Arthur Guinness, founder of the brewing empire. In 1873 Henry founded the East London Training Institute for Home and Foreign Missions, taking inspiration from faith missions like James Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission. The institute charged no fees from students and was to be run by faith alone, which lent a revivalist impetus to its endeavours but also generated its own financial troubles. The Regions Beyond magazine, created in 1878, publicised the actions and challenges of the Institute and gave news of missionaries around the world. Several evangelistic ventures sparked from the RBMU’s founders, students, and associates, such as the Livingstone Inland Mission and the Congo Balolo Mission that operated in Central Africa. In 1897 the Institute also took responsibility for the support of a group of students working in Peru and Argentina. Because of internal disagreements about the organisation of the mission and financial difficulties, these missions were handed over to the newly founded Evangelical Union of South America in 1911. Over the first decades of the twentieth century missionaries trained by the RBMU established new missionary centres in South America, such as the Peru Inland Mission, and were able to support themselves through educational and medical work.

Alice Fagan
Savannah Weiler

In the next few months, the students will publish some of their interesting archival findings in this blog. The posts illuminate the actions, ordeals, and challenges of missionaries, the intimate relationship they developed with the populations of Peru and Argentina, the medical and educational ventures undertaken, their idiosyncratic views on mission and civilisation, amongst other things. Alice Fagan is a third-year student in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. She is broadly interested in social history and material culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as museum and gender studies. In the past Alice took the course ‘History of Christianity as a World Religion’ in the School of Divinity, and now, looking at the RBMU records and the medical and educational actions of missionaries, is expanding her knowledge on the worldwide iterations of Christian religion. Savannah Weiler is a fourth-year student in the Fine Art programme at the Edinburgh College of Art. She has interests in art practice, photography, and old photographic techniques, as well as archival and translation work. Savannah is interested in the photographic records of the RBMU and missionary action in the 1960s and 70s, a period of intense historical transformations as well as political and social polarisation. Their blogs highlight the richness of the CSWC archival collections and the usefulness of missionary sources as tools of historical interpretation.