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1958 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service

BIOGRAPHY of Mary Rutnam

Dr. MARY RUTNAM, the former MARY HELEN IRWIN, was born on June 2, 1873 at Elora, Ontario, Canada. Her family later moved to Kincardine, bordering Lake Huron, where she received her education. Later she qualified as a doctor at the Toronto Medical College for Women, and took her postgraduate work in New York.

Dr. IRWIN came to Ceylon in December 1896, "in the days of horse and bullock coaches," to join the American Medical Mission at Jaffna. In March 1898, she moved to Colombo where she married Samuel Christian Kanagar Rutnam, B.A. (Madras) and M.A. (Princeton), a Tamil Ceylonese whom she had met while in New York. Taking up private practice, she also assisted her husband in his educational and mission work. He was a teacher by profession and later founded Central College in Colombo.

In the following October, the doctor in charge of the newly-opened Lady Havelock Hospital for Women and Children went on sick leave and Dr. RUTNAM was requested by the Medical Department to act for her. Here she performed the first orthopedic surgery in Ceylon and lectured to the first group of women medical students, then in their final year.

Since then Dr. RUTNAM has continued to show her deep concern for others and to minister to their needs in a private capacity as a doctor, as a municipal councilor and as a public-spirited citizen. Over the years she has so identified herself with the country of her adoption as to become one of its own and is now a Ceylonese national.

The Lady Havelock Hospital, the Council of Temperance Workers, the Colombo Municipal Council of which she was the first woman member, the Young Women's Christian Association and, indeed, practically every women's institute or organization in Ceylon have all come under her good influence.

Though her age dictated retirement several years ago. Dr. RUTNAM maintains a keen interest in the many activities she was instrumental in establishing, particularly those for the benefit of rural women in Ceylon. Now 85, she is a member of a number of committees, including the Government Marriage and Divorce Commission.

It was in 1904 that Dr. RUTNAM and others in Ceylon were launched on careers of social service. Dr. Choni Oliver, then working in the Canadian Presbyterian Mission at Indore, Central India, had been a first year student at the Toronto Women's Medical College when Dr. RUTNAM graduated and they had many mutual friends. When Dr. Oliver came to Ceylon for her holiday that year, she visited hospitals with Dr. RUTNAM and spent hours telling her how the women in Canada and the United States were venturing out in social services. She bought Dr. RUTNAM books, subscribed for American Motherhood and other magazines, and generated on her friend's part keen enthusiasm in the advanced service of Western women and the great need for such work in the East. Dr. RUTNAM later spoke of Dr. Oliver's visit as "a pebble thrown into a stream." "I was the first wavelet," she said, "and the waves are still broadening." A few weeks after this memorable encounter, Dr. RUTNAM's third son was born, and, shortly afterwards, she invited a group of young mothers and teachers to a tea party and related to them all Dr. Oliver had told her. The lengthy discussions that followed ended in a resolve to act, but the ladies said, "we must learn ourselves before we can teach others." When they formed the Women's Mutual Improvement Association, husbands and the press ridiculed the "Cinnamon Gardens ladies" who wanted to improve themselves—"what of the others?" they were asked. The group's name was later changed to The Ceylon Women's Union, and a comprehensive constitution was drafted which established as objectives the improvement of the women of Ceylon as wives, mothers and true citizens and the spread of knowledge, truth and purity in their homes and throughout the Island.

Dr. RUTNAM also has taken a deep interest in the Social Service League of Ceylon since its founding, in 1911, by two prominent Ceylonese philanthropists. Its objectives are to bring to the educated and wealthy in the community an awareness of their obligation to serve those in less privileged circumstances; to study social problems and to collect and disseminate information thereon; to provide training in social services; to improve conditions of the poor and the neglected; to assist all civic organizations and to foster cooperation between them.

During its formative years, Dr. RUTNAM assisted in planning, directing and administering the League's activities. She established the first Free Day-Care Center in Ceylon for children of working mothers. This Center, a second League Creche, and a Welfare Center which distributes food and vitamins to needy families are still functioning today.

The League set up Ceylon's first free English-language night school, in 1912, and now manages two such institutions as well as a Sinhalese-language primary and secondary school for girls. It runs a Girls' Sewing School and a Community Center for working men with a reading room, film shows, lectures, indoor games and periodic basic literacy classes.

Funds for these activities come from donations in response to annual appeals, regular membership fees, government grants for League-managed schools and philanthropic institutions. Last fiscal year donations and subscriptions brought in Rs.11,150; government school grants totaled Rs.5,262; and net income from the Trust Fund was Rs.2,728.

As a municipal councilor, Dr. RUTNAM worked for better sanitary and health conditions, addressing herself particularly to the problem of markets, the graft-ridden buying and selling of meat, and the condition of meat stalls. For years, she fought for a children's ward in the government hospital where children with tuberculosis could be housed, fed and properly cared for. In 1925, she began agitation for a better milk supply and 12 years later, in 1937, was still calling public attention to the need for a central depot where all dairies would be compelled to take their milk for testing.

Dr. RUTNAM's greatest contribution perhaps has been the introduction into Ceylon of women's institutes, known as the Lanka Mahila Samiti. Affiliated to the Associated Countrywomen of the World, the origins of this movement were in Ontario, Canada, in 1897. There, women's institutes were begun by the Canadian Department of Agriculture but soon took on a separate identity as a women's movement. The program came into being in Ceylon in 1930 soon after a talk by Dr. RUTNAM on "Women's Institutes for Rural Reconstruction" at an All-Ceylon Conference of Social Workers.

The Lanka Mahila Samiti suggests the breadth and depth of this generous-minded woman's work. Recognizing no barriers of caste, creed or community, these women's institutes have done much to alter the status of the village women. Before its inception, an observer has noted, "she was perhaps a mudalali's (small store-owner's) wife, somebody's servant, a betel-seller . . . or an estate laborer. Today no one thinks of her in these terms. She is a president, a secretary, a skillful weaver of mats or bags, a demonstrator in sweet-making; we think of her homemaking successes, her community responsibilities, her social qualities and her economic capacity."

The women, thus bolstered, have taken an increasingly active role in their villages, not only helping their menfolk but also initiating work themselves. Community life, with its wholesome give-and-take spirit, took on new meaning, and, as one account reads, "there was instilled a regeneration and a revivifying in the sons and daughters of the land of a genuine love of the soil and the instinct not to break faith with it."

Dr. RUTNAM seemed to be everywhere in the work of the institutes: "Her experience helped in many ways to stabilize the movement," a report on the Lanka Mahila Samiti states, "though with her usual foresight she adapted her knowledge and experience to local needs." She pushed to the front potential organizers in the women's groups. She supervised the program of balanced diets to be introduced to the villagers, talked with rural teachers to enlist their cooperation in the rural rehabilitation movement, taught the villagers hygienic ways while also teaching women how to teach others. Dr. RUTNAM was with the people who boosted food production and improved nutrition through home gardens and simple improvements in the preparation and preservation of food, as she was with those who laid the foundation for cottage industries. She encouraged folk drama, folk songs and dances, explaining that these are manifestations both of native culture and self-respecting nationalism.

Dr. RUTNAM also found time to edit a number of textbooks that today are widely used in Ceylonese schools, including manuals on health and homecraft and a simple recipe book for beginners in home science. During the 1942 air raids, she compiled a leaflet—the only one of its kind in Ceylon— with simple instructions on air raid precautions and first aid, especially suited to village needs and utilizing local remedies.

With all her numerous public activities and her professional duties, this slight, energetic woman was first a wife and mother of five. Three of the Rutnams' sons and their one daughter are residing in Ceylon and one son is presently in the United Kingdom. Dr. RUTNAM has nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

In a letter published in The Times of Ceylon in 1949, Dr. RUTNAM expressed her "thanks and deep appreciation" for gifts, letters and telegrams received on her 76th birthday and added these typical words:

"I would also wish to pay a tribute to the loyal cooperation of that splendid band of Ceylon women of all communities with whom through the long years I have been associated and who should share with me whatever success has been achieved. Some of these workers are no more, some are in the forefront of useful service today. We, too, will pass on. What of the future? Today the problems that face an independent Ceylon are immense and the need more urgent than ever for men and women specially trained to deal with them in an intelligent and constructive manner.

"I feel sure that many of Lanka's daughters now in our schools, colleges and University will heed the call to dedicate their lives and talents in useful services for their motherland, so they may be equipped and contribute their rightful share towards the building of a Lanka whose freedom will not only be political but economical and spiritual as well."

August 1958


Reports of the Lanka Mahila Samiti.

Clippings from the Ceylonese press of 1937, 1949, 1955, 1956 and 1957.

Interviews with persons acquainted with Dr. Mary H. Rutnam and her work.

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