Dr. Mary Rutnam (1873-1962): A Canadian Pioneer for Sri Lankan Women

Colombo newspaper from 1947 featuring Dr. Rutnam

When Anne Ranasinghe asked Dr. Rutnam, 89, what was the most exciting event of her life, Mary is reported to have said, “my coming to Ceylon of course”. She did a great deal for the women of Sri Lanka nearly a century ago and her life’s journey was a remarkable one.

Readers of The Parlour Rebellion, a book by Canadian Isabel Bassett, will know about a period in Canadian history when young women wanted to make a difference in society and change the old ways of doing things. Dr. Rutnam was of that ilk.

Who was Dr. Rutnam? The expert is Sri Lanka’s Secretary to the Social Scientists Association, Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, who wrote a book on the subject, “A Canadian Pioneer for Women’s Rights in Sri Lanka”. E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe has also highlighted her importance to the country in The Good at their Best.

Dr. Rutnam was a founder of the Lanka Mahila Samiti training program for rural women. Of the five Asian winners of the first 1958 Magsaysay Foundation award, she won for her social work. She was the only woman. More than a do-gooder and humanitarian, she was also a political activist, involved in the Women’s Political Union and the All Ceylon Women’s Conference. She wrote textbooks on health and hygiene and visited schools, teaching about reproductive systems and childbirth at a time when such subjects were taboo. She wrote books including A Health Manual for Schools and A Homecraft Manual for Ceylon. She became a vigorous campaigner for less alcohol and more milk consumption. She ventured out with her son Robin to do battle with the 1934-35 malaria epidemic that killed an estimated 100,000 people in Sri Lanka.

The problems of industrialization in Canada in the late 19th century led to increased Christian participation in social reform. Women such as Mary grew up making connections between poverty, alcoholism, women’s health, social problems and women’s suffrage.

Mary Irwin was born in Elora, Ontario and spent her childhood in Kincardine. She studied at Women’s Medical College, attached to Trinity College, University of Toronto, becoming a medical doctor in 1896. She was attracted to global sisterhood and applied for a medical position in Sri Lanka through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. While training in New York she met and married her future husband, Samuel Christmas Kanaga Rutnam, a Christian Tamil born on an island off Jaffna.

Dr. Rutnam and her family in Canada (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

She arrived in Sri Lanka in 1896 as a missionary doctor but was rejected by the missionaries because of her marriage to a Sri Lankan; worked for the Sri Lankan government, but was not made permanent because of her Canadian rather than British medical degree. In defiance of missionary and colonial society, she stayed in Sri Lanka and left the missionaries. Dr. Rutnam worked at the state-run Lady Havelock Hospital for Women in Colombo until she was denied a permanent position. She then went into private practice, attracting women, Muslims and others who preferred to be treated by a woman. She learned to stay among local people, avoid the English colonial structure and be doggedly non-denominational in terms of religious affiliation.

Lady Havelock hospital with Dr. Rutnam (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

Inspired by the example of a Canadian woman doing similar work in India, she became involved in social work in Sri Lanka and remained a good networker with women in Sri Lanka, Canada and India.

The Rutnams travelled back to Canada in 1907-8 and Mary learned about the Canadian government support for the Women’s Institute movement. The US activist, Ralph Nader, would later write in his book on “Canada firsts” that this movement was the largest organization of women in the world. It was established in 1897 at Stoney Creek, Ontario and went on to establish chapters in 50 countries with a focus on promoting knowledge of home economics, especially in rural communities.

Samuel Rutnam died in 1929 after years of ill health leaving Mary to raise their four sons and one daughter.

Family planning was important to her. In Canada, progress was being made with the Planned Parenthood Association. Trying something similar in Colombo was a challenge. Sylvia Fernando of the Family Planning Association that eventually formed credited her with being “so far ahead in her thinking”. Eventually a Sri Lankan, Bradman Weerakoon, later to serve as Secretary to successive Sri Lankan leaders, became associated with leadership in the field internationally.

She became the first female member of the Colombo Municipal Council in May 1937, the first time women were allowed to contest. She represented the ward of Bambalapitiya, where she had lived for over 20 years.

Despite her many achievements, it can be argued that it was in the area of rural women’s organization that she made her most lasting impact. In the late 1920s while visiting Canada, Dr. Rutnam studied the Women’s Institutes. In 1931, at her urging, the first such institute was opened in Pannipitiya near Colombo. The movement reached out to the poorest women and cut across caste divisions with activities involving health, child care, first aid, home nursing, food preservation, agriculture, dairy farming, handicrafts and dancing and drama. Often Lanka Mahila Samiti became the centre of village social life and they grew to 150,000 members in 1959, becoming the largest women’s organization on the island. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s experience with public speaking was developed with her LMS activism prior to becoming the world’s first female Prime Minister.

 Dr. Rutnam’s family members reminisce today

What makes Dr. Rutnam’s accomplishments remarkable is the fact that she was also the mother of five children. She did not hesitate to credit a wonderful housekeeper for making her work outside the home possible.

Dr. Rutnam and her children in Sri Lanka (courtesy of the Rutnam family)

She had four boys, Alan, Donald, Robin and Walter and one girl, Helen. The boys were educated at Royal College and Helen went to Ladies’ College (and later University of Toronto like her mother). It must have been a financial drain for someone who did not make a great deal of money but her frugal ways helped.

Today her grandchildren live on, including Dr. R. Rutnam who the National Library of Australia lists in its series of “outstanding older women scientists”. Her recent publication addresses the ethics of medical research as part of community health studies. Her grandmother would approve.

As so often in Sri Lankan family histories, Dr. Rutnam’s husband was Tamil yet the marriages of his progeny linked the Rutnam name to Sinhalese, Burghers and Europeans. Dr. Rutnam’s children married into other communities and studied abroad, including at McGill University in Canada, at Antioch in the USA and at Cambridge, UK. They went on to join the Indian Civil Service, practiced medicine, and entered the business and cooperative worlds.

Dr. Rutnam’s Colombo granddaughter, Anne (Anita) Captain, studied dance and still retains that distinct dancer’s upright carriage. She and her sister, artist Nadine David, remember their grandmother with affection. Anne Captain points out that the relationship was nonetheless more formal in those days. Her sons adored her, she said, and yet they addressed her always with great respect.

The family relationships remain strong though marked by tragedy over the years given health problems. Extended family members of the Rutnam family have even returned to Canada. Dr. Rutnam’s diary was sent to the library of the University of Alberta by grandson Brian Rutnam. Canada’s University of Alberta President is Indira Samarasekera and her great grandmother was Dr. Rutnam’s sister in law.

Dr. Rutnam’s granddaughter Anita Captain and Kumari Jayawardene


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