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TURNBULL, AGNES MARIA, teacher and medical missionary; b. 29 Aug. 1866 in Melrose, Upper Canada, eldest daughter of Agnes Maltman and John Turnbull, a Presbyterian minister; d. 5 Jan. 1907 in Neemuch, India.

In their memorial service for Agnes Maria Turnbull in 1907, officers of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (Western Division) declared that it had been “a life long wish of the parents to give their eldest child to foreign service.” The statement was formulaic, but it reflected the important role of parental encouragement in giving rise to the vocations that sent hundreds of Canadian Protestants to foreign mission fields during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Agnes had been baptized in October 1866 by her father’s friend William McLaren (MacLaren), who in 1875 became convenor of the church’s Foreign Missions Committee (Western Division). Her schooling probably took place in the Melrose area (near Belleville), where John Turnbull had a ministerial charge until 1881. In the early 1880s the family moved to Quebec. Agnes obtained a diploma from McGill Normal School in 1885 and began teaching.

In 1887 she wrote to the FMC to enquire about becoming a missionary. The committee encouraged her to prepare by becoming a doctor, since, particularly in India, where the traditions of purdah prevailed, the practice of medicine by women missionaries had come to be seen as an effective way to demonstrate the benevolence of Christianity to segregated women. Assisted financially by the WFMS, Agnes attended Women’s Medical College, Kingston, from 1888 to 1892 and after graduating spent several weeks obtaining postgraduate training in New York. On 11 Aug. 1892, at an impressive church service in Belleville, she was formally designated for work in India. She travelled to Scotland with her father to visit relatives before proceeding to India with fellow missionary Jessie Duncan, who would become her “almost constant companion.” In November 1892 they arrived in Indore, headquarters of the Central India mission since its founding in 1877.

Like other newly arrived missionaries, Agnes was expected to concentrate on acquiring a local language. She also assisted in the women’s hospital and for some months supervised a mission school. By 1895 she had been transferred to the mission station at Neemuch. There she practised medicine from two dispensaries and pioneered medical work in a new outstation, Jawad. As in Indore, some of her duties involved home visiting. Agnes willingly combined evangelistic activities with medical work. She also took part in the struggle to obtain a greater role for women in the mission’s government, hitherto dominated by male missionaries, despite their smaller number. She was not, however, a frequent correspondent nor does she appear to have done much public speaking while on furlough. As a result, little is known about her religious or feminist views.

At the turn of the century, Central India was devastated by a famine, which was followed by outbreaks of plague. Agnes, who had been on furlough in Canada at the height of the famine, was back in Indore in charge of medical work at the time of the most serious outbreak of plague, in 1903. She cooperated fully with British medical officials in relief work and thus came to the attention of imperial authorities. In 1905, when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Indore, she was the only member of the mission staff introduced to them. A year later she was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind Medal, established by the imperial government in 1900 to recognize “service in the advancement of the public interest in India.” Agnes did not live to enjoy the attention that the honour would have brought her in Canada. Within months of receiving the medal she had succumbed to a paralysing illness, the result, colleague Margaret MacKellar wrote, of the even greater zeal for plague relief that the decoration had inspired. In a message of sympathy, India’s viceroy, Lord Minto [Elliot*], also attributed Agnes’s illness to her plague work. Following her death, British residents of Indore installed a brass tablet in her memory in the local Anglican church.

WFMS officials in Canada used Agnes’s death as an object lesson in missionary zeal, praying “that her noble example may prove a stimulus to many young women in the Church, and inspire them to offer themselves for this Christlike work.” But such tributes were not sufficient to stimulate new medical-missionary vocations in the numbers desired, especially given the demise of the women’s medical colleges in Kingston and Toronto, which had produced so many members of the first generation of missionary doctors. Nor could the WFMS guarantee lasting fame for a missionary who had been as uninclined as Agnes Turnbull to engage in self-promotion.

Ruth Compton Brouwer

Presbyterian sources give conflicting dates for Agnes Maria Turnbull’s death. The date cited here is that given in Margaret MacKellar’s account of her death and burial in Foreign Missionary Tidings ([Toronto]), 23 (1906–7): 174–76; it is confirmed by a photograph of Agnes’s gravestone in UCC-C, Photograph Coll., India Missions.

MUA, RG 7, c.114. UCC-C, 122/1, 79.185C, box 5, Wardrope to Turnbull, 29 Sept., 26 Oct. 1887; 29 Jan. 1888; 122/2, file 6a, Agnes M. Turnbull to Cassells, 23 May 1892 [this file also contains corr. concerning an applicant named Agnes Scott Turnbull]; 122/8, file 40, Turnbull to Cassells, 5 Sept. 1892; file 60, letter from M. Oliver et al., 16 Aug. 1897; file 94, MacKellar to Warden, 23 Nov. 1906; Women’s Council minutes, 20 Dec. 1906; Church records, Bay of Quinte Conference, Shannonville, Ont., United Church records, reg. of baptisms; Jessie Duncan, “India’s womanhood on the march: a manuscript” (typescript, n.d.), 57. Ruth Compton Brouwer, New women for God: Canadian Presbyterian women and India missions, 1876–1914 (Toronto, 1990). Foreign Missionary Tidings, 24 (1907–8): 18. “Ministers of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1875–1925: ministerial summary from Acts and proceedings of the General Assembly,” comp. Douglas Walkington (mimeograph, [Toronto], 1987; copy at UCC-C). Monthly Letter Leaflet (Toronto), 9 (1892–93): 142. Presbyterian Church in Canada, Acts and proc., 1894, app.11: liii-liv; 1896, app.6: lxi; Board of Foreign Missions, Report of the Canadian Presbyterian mission in Malwa, Central India, 1901–2: 6–7; Woman’s Foreign Missionary Soc. (Western Div.), Annual report (Toronto), 1888: 35; 1900–1: 10. Presbyterian Record, 31 (1906): 421–22. V. [J.] Strong-Boag, “Canada’s women doctors: feminism constrained,” A not unreasonable claim (L. Kealey), 109–29.

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Cite This Article

Ruth Compton Brouwer, “TURNBULL, AGNES MARIA,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turnbull_agnes_maria_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turnbull_agnes_maria_13E.html
Author of Article:   Ruth Compton Brouwer
Title of Article:   TURNBULL, AGNES MARIA
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 23, 2023