ONE of Scotland’s many unsung medical heroes is Dr Isabel Kerr, whose pioneering work in the treatment of leprosy is often forgotten in her native land but not in India where her memory is revered.

It was in this week of 1932 that Dr Kerr died at the age of 57. She had devoted the last 25 years of her life to nursing sick people in India, particularly those afflicted with leprosy, and is reckoned to have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, has been a curse on the human species for thousands of years. The name comes from two Greek words that together mean scaly-skinned man – serious skin lesions are a common symptom of leprosy.

The oldest human remains showing signs of the disease date from 2000 BC, but it wasn’t until 1873 that the Norwegian physician Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912) identified the cause of the disease as a bacterium, mycobacterium leprae.

Over the last four millennia the disease has killed millions of people worldwide, and it only became curable in the 20th century. India has been one of the worst affected countries in history and for centuries, people who caught leprosy were shunned as the lowest of the low in a country where the caste system declared victims to be “untouchables” – the caste system was abolished many years ago but Indian people with leprosy continue to be stigmatised to this day.

It was into this society which then completely shunned victims of leprosy that Isabel and her husband, the Rev George McGlashan Kerr, arrived in 1907.

Isabel had been born on May 30, 1875, to a farmer, John Bain Gunn, and his wife Mary née Garden in Gollachy, Enzie in what was then Banffshire but is now Moray. Her parents were able to send her to pursue her early love of medicine at the University of Aberdeen where records show that she received her degrees of MB ChB in 1903 – she was one of the earliest female graduates in medicine at the university, the first being Dr Myra MacKenzie (1876-1957) just three years earlier.

While in Aberdeen she met a local man, George McGlashan Kerr, a joiner who had joined the Methodist society in the city and trained to become a missionary. After qualifying for the Wesleyan ministry at Didsbury College in Manchester, Kerr had been on missionary work in Southern Africa before coming home to Aberdeen. They married in 1903 and after a spell in England, in 1907 their lives’ work began when Rev Kerr was sent by the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to Nizamabad in the then princely state of Hyderabad in India, and now in Telangana state.

At first he superintended an industrial school while Isabel worked as a doctor in local hospitals. It soon became clear to them that there was a whole class of people succumbing to leprosy without any aid or relief, and they were determined to treat victims of the disease as best they could.

A local Hindu, Raja Narsa Gowd (or Narsagoud), gave them a donation of 10,000 rupees with which Isabel was able to establish a treatment home – no more than a hut – in the grounds of the Mission compound in 1911. Narsagoud was almost a legendary figure in his home city because of his concern for he poor and when the first establishment was overwhelmed with patients coming from far and wide, he arranged for 60 acres of land at Dichpali, a town just a few miles down the railway line from Nizambad, to be given by the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan – the last ruler of the state.

With Narsagoud arranging the finances, and with the assistance of the Leprosy Mission in London, the Kerrs supervised the building of a full-scale leprosy hospital, which opened in 1915 under Isabel’s supervision. In 1920 came a stunning development which Isabel Kerr helped to pioneer.

A fellow Scot, Dr Ernest Muir, was researching the use of the oil of the chaulmoogra tree to treat leprosy, a treatment suggested by Sir Leonard Rogers, the founder of the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association.

Newly appointed as medical superintendent, Isabel Kerr persuaded her patients to try it out, with remarkable improvements in their condition. Her writings on the treatment impressed Muir and Rogers and soon chaulmoogra oil was a standard treatment for leprosy across India and beyond.

The hospital could not cope with the numbers seeking treatment and eventually consisted of more than 120 buildings. Her pioneering work had already been recognised in 1923 when both she and her husband were awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal by King George V in his capacity as the Emperor of India.

Two other Scottish women doctors, Margaret Ida Balfour and Mary Ronald Bisset, also received Gold Medals and I will write about their work next week.

Possibly worn out by her work, Isabel Kerr died suddenly on January 12, 1932. Her husband carried on her work until he retired to Scotland six years later.

The following is her obituary from the British Journal of Nursing: “‘Dr Isabel Kerr, a medical missionary who was one of the foremost authorities on the treatment of leprosy in India, has died at Dishpali, the Methodist Leper Home and Hospital near Nizamabad, of which for the past 12 years she had been the medical superintendent.

“Her medical skill and her devotion to the cause of the leper, together with her modest reserve and womanly charm, won her innumerable friends both in India and at home.”

Before his death in 1950, Rev Kerr donated their joint writings to Edinburgh University.