Reed, Mary (1854–1943)

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Reed, Mary (1854–1943)

American Methodist missionary . Born Mary Reed on December 4, 1854, in Lowell, Ohio; died on April 8, 1943, in Chandag, India; daughter of Wesley W. Reed and Sarah Ann (Henderson) Reed; graduated from Ohio Central Normal School in Worthington, 1878.

Taught school (1879–84); joined the Cincinnati branch of the Methodist Women's Foreign Missionary Society and sailed to India (1884); returned to the United States due to ill health (1890); went back to India after being diagnosed with leprosy (1891); appointed superintendent of a leper asylum near Pithoragarh (1892); awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal by the government of India (1917); supervised the asylum and local schools (1892–1938); honored by the American Mission to Lepers (1941).

Born into a deeply religious Ohio family in 1854, by age 16 Mary Reed was very active in her local Methodist church. She taught for five years at a district school before deciding to become a missionary at about age 30. In 1884, she joined the Cincinnati branch of the Methodist Women's Foreign Missionary Society and headed to India.

In January 1885, Reed was assigned a post among Hindu women in Cawnpore, but poor health forced her to delay taking the position. While convalescing at Pithoragarh in the foothills of the Himalayas, she studied Hindustani and observed missionary work at a leper colony in the nearby area of Chandag. After her assignment at Cawnpore, Reed became head-mistress of a girls' school in Gonda, but fell ill again in 1890 and had to return to the United States for treatment. Her suspicions that she had contracted leprosy were confirmed by a New York doctor. Interpreting her condition as a call to minister to the lepers she had met, she kept the news from her family and friends and in 1891 returned to Pithoragarh.

Early in 1892, Reed was appointed superintendent of the leper asylum at Chandag, which had been established by the interdenominational British Mission to Lepers in India and the East. Reed lobbied effectively to improve the conditions at the asylum; under her administration, its original huts and stables were replaced by cottages, a chapel, a water-supply system, a school, a small hospital, a dispensary, and even 48 more acres of land. While dealing with all the legal, financial, and supervisory demands of running the asylum, she also cared for patients personally and taught reading and religious classes. For seven years, she also pursued her Methodist missionary work by supervising six village schools and three Sunday schools which lay within a five-mile radius of the asylum.

By 1896, despite her refusal of any medical treatment, Reed's leprosy was all but gone, which amazed her very few outside visitors. In all, she did not leave Chandag for 52 years except for five times—two religious gatherings, a trip to Palestine and to the dentist, and one last visit to the United States. When her leprosy flared again in 1932, treatments were available to control it, but by the time she retired in 1938 she was almost completely blind. Her loss of sight contributed to a fatal accident in 1943.

During her life Reed was much admired for her dedicated service: she received the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal from the government of India in 1917, and was honored by the American Mission to Lepers (later renamed the American Leprosy Missions, Inc.) in 1941. Six years after her death, the Mary Reed Memorial Hospital was built by the American Mission to Lepers.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada