I came across the name of Dr. Florence Nichols while doing research for my dissertation, which examined the history of Canadian aid to India during the 1950s. You can find a link to the full dissertation on the University of Waterloo’s website. In 1955, Escott Reid, the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi, toured southern India, leaving a detailed record of his trip. He visited the Christian Medical College (CMC) in Vellore. There he encountered Dr. Nichols, a Canadian psychiatrist and Anglican missionary, whom he briefly mentions in his account of the trip. Nichols complained to Reid that there was no psychiatric ward, and that “many of [the patients] are kept in chains in local hotels where they are looked after by their relatives.”
This somewhat harrowing description of Nichols’ work piqued my interest. I knew, thanks to the work of historian Dr. Ruth Compton Brouwer and others, that female Canadian doctors had been travelling to Asia as missionaries since the late 19th century. But surely there were few female psychiatrists working in Canada at that time, and Dr. Nichols was willing to travel and work under difficult conditions in India in the 1950s, then still considered a far-away, “exotic” locale to most Canadians. She sounded like a fascinating person.
According to a profile in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Nichols had been working at the CMC since 1946, and after receiving specialty training in Canada to qualify as a professor of Psychiatry, she helped to establish a psychiatric centre at the college in 1957. According to the article, “her vision and the concept of family participation in the care and rehabilitation of people with mental illness that she pioneered continues unchanged” at the CMC.
Further research led me to a working paper by Dr. Christopher Harding, a historian at the University of Edinburgh, that paints a more complicated picture of Nichols. Working in the CMC archives, Harding found that Nichols tried to introduce a brand of “Christian psychiatry” to the CMC. Although she was instrumental in creating the mental health centre at the CMC, her career there ended in some disgrace due to controversy over her romantic life and her interest in and possible use of LSD. Harding’s research on Nichols was hampered by the lack of access to personal papers, which had been taken by her romantic partner from the CMC archives.
I find Dr. Nichols’ story interesting, not just on its own merits, but because it is representative of a larger story that I hope to tell with the research I will gather during my AMS postdoctoral fellowship. Nichols stood on shifting ground in the story of Canadian overseas aid to South and Southeast Asia. By the 1950s, Western missionary activity in the Global South was certainly declining in esteem among emerging post-colonial nations such as India. Yet no doubt Nichols’ complaint to Reid was in the hopes of accessing a relatively new source of income: official government assistance, although it was not called that at the time. Since 1951, Canada had been disbursing aid under the Colombo Program for Co-operative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, a Commonwealth initiative that marked Canada’s first major foray into the field of aid for the Global South. Eventually, the CMC did receive Canadian Colombo Plan aid, but not for psychiatric wards. It received an innovative piece of Canadian technology, a cobalt-60 machine, for cancer treatment.
The brief encounter between Reid and Nichols was one connection between old and new. Nichols represented the largely passing world of missionary activity, while Reid represented the new and quickly growing field of governmental aid. Eventually, secular non-governmental organizations entered the picture, often proving a more attractive option for adventurous Canadian youth than the missionary posts of their parents’ generation. No doubt further linkages exist between these three contributors to Canadian health-related humanitarian efforts in South and Southeast Asia during the 1950s and 1960s. But what were they? Where is the evidence of their existence? And perhaps the most exciting question of all, who were the fascinating characters, such as Dr. Nichols, that made them happen? With AMS funding, I soon hope to find out the answers to these questions.
If you have any information about Dr. Nichols, or any other Canadians that worked abroad in South and Southeast Asia in any health related field during the 1950s and 1960s, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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