Isabel Kerr lived from 30 May 1875 to 12 January 1932. She was a doctor and missionary who pioneered the treatment of leprosy in India. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Isabel Gunn was born into a farming family living near Banff in northern Aberdeenshire. She went on to graduate in 1903 from the University of Aberdeen with the Degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. After graduation, Isabel married the Rev George Kerr, who had served as a Methodist missionary in Africa.
The two lived together in England until 1907 before being sent by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to the Indian state of Hyderabad. George helped establish an industrial school, while Isabel looked after the health needs of local residents. She learned to speak the local language, Telegu, and travelled around local villages, often in a bullock cart, caring for the sick.
Leprosy was a particular problem in the area at the time. In 1915, Isabel opened a home for lepers at Dichpali, on 60 acres of land donated by Raja Narsa Goud, together with the funds needed to establish the home and keep it running. The home served every caste and religion of Indian society, initially offering only palliative care to local people, travellers and refugees. From 1921, Isabel was able to launch a pioneering program of treatment for leprosy following the discovery of the effectiveness of injections of hyndocarpus oil by Edwin Muir and Leonard Rogers.
It has been estimated that of the 2,800 patients treated by Isobel Kerr at Dichpali and later at Hyderabad, up to a half saw the progress of the disease arrested as a result. For her services she was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal, given by the British Monarch to individuals who rendered distinguished service to the British Raj. Isabel Kerr died suddenly in India in 1932. Her work at Dichpali was carried on by her husband George until he retired back to Scotland in 1938.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".