Pioneers: Margaret Ida Balfour (1865-1945) FRCOG 1931

This month’s Pioneers post honours Margaret Ida Balfour, an early Fellow of the College whose efforts helped shape maternity care for women in India over a century ago.

Margaret Ida Balfour – known to her family simply as ‘Ida’ – was born into a large family in Edinburgh in 1865, where her father, Robert, was a chartered accountant. When Ida was young, her eldest brother contracted scarlet fever and her father nursed him during his illness. Regrettably he too contracted the disease and died, leaving the family in dire financial circumstances.

Margaret Ida Balfour as a child with dog
Margaret Ida Balfour as a child with her dog Dot. Credit: Jean Hunter and the Wellcome Library

It was perhaps this tragedy that led Ida to pursue a career in medicine. Only her extraordinary determination and intelligence would have enabled her to achieve this during a time when it was difficult for women to become doctors, especially with no financial backing.

Our Heritage Team was lucky enough to speak with Ida’s great niece, Jean Hunter, who told us that ‘[Ida] was small and quiet, but she really was the iron hand in the velvet glove and if she wanted something she would persist.’

Ida qualified at the School of Medicine for Women in Edinburgh in 1891 and was taught by Sophia Jex Blake, the first practicing female doctor in Scotland. She gained her MD in Brussels and Paris, as Edinburgh did not award medical degrees to women at that time, and worked for a year at Clapham Maternity Hospital in London.

Margaret Ida Balfour, graduation photograph
Margaret Ida Balfour’s graduation photograph, 1891. Credit: Jean Hunter and the Wellcome Library

In 1892 Balfour went to India to take charge of the Women’s Hospital in Ludhiana. Hospitals like these were referred to locally as ‘zenana’, meaning ‘women’s quarters’, and were established by female Christian missionaries for Indian women in purdah. Purdah is the practice of screening women from men, often for religious reasons. This separation forbade women in labour from being treated by male doctors or nurses, which made the role of female doctors and maternity care providers, both from India and overseas, all the more vital.

After three years in India, Ida was promoted to Medical Superintendent of the Women’s Hospital at Nahan and in 1903 she became Medical Superintendent of the Lady Dufferin Hospital in Patiala. In 1914 she was appointed Assistant to the Inspector General of Civil Hospitals in the Punjab and in 1916 as Medical Woman Secretary to the Dufferin Fund, under which the Women’s Medical Service (WMS) for India was organised.  She soon took on the responsibility of becoming Chief Medical Officer of the WMS, a job which she continued until her retirement.

Margaret Ida Balfour with other medical women in India
Margaret Ida Balfour (front row, fifth from the left) with the medical women of India. Credit: Jean Hunter and the Wellcome Library.

Her publications on midwifery, infant mortality and maternal mortality in India were prolific. She was also called in as an expert witness in 1928 by the Joshi Committee Enquiry into child marriage in India.

During her career, she trained Indian women as health visitors, helping to improve access to maternal healthcare across India. She also took great interest in the Association of Medical Women in India and was elected President of the all India association in 1929. She was awarded a CBE in 1924 and became a Fellow of the RCOG in 1931.

Portrait photograph of Margaret Ida Balfour
Portrait photograph of Margaret Ida Balfour in later life. Credit: Jean Hunter and the Wellcome Library.

Ida Balfour retired to Norwood in 1924, where she shared a house with her sisters. She moved to the countryside her home was bombed out during the War and her great niece and nephew, of whom she had oversight whilst their parents were serving in Singapore, used to visit her there regularly. She kept them entertained by making up fantastic stories about life in a large Scottish family!

Ida eventually moved back to Dulwich, where, at age 80, she served as an Air Raid Precautions Medical Officer until her death in December 1945.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s