Obituaries: Marion Conacher MBE, missionary nurse who survived jealous poisoner

Marion Nelson Conacher MBE, missionary nurseBorn: 2 July, 1933 in Edinburgh. Died: 8 October, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 88

Marion Conacher (left) and her friend Ruth Hofstetter with Kairi the Royal Bengal tiger
Marion Conacher (left) and her friend Ruth Hofstetter with Kairi the Royal Bengal tiger

Even as a young girl Marion Conacher had known that her vocation was to serve as a missionary nurse but after her life’s calling finally became a reality it almost proved fatal. For at one point she found herself up against a rival with a potentially lethal determination to stop her succeeding.

As a nurse and missionary she had already integrated well in the rural hinterlands of north-east India, immersing herself in the culture of the Santals of Bihar state and acclimatising to a lifestyle that was a world away from the 1960s Scotland she had left behind. She learned Hindi, wore a sari and worked hard for the community.

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But when she moved to expand and improve a nursing school in Tilda in central India’s Madhya Pradesh, a local unqualified woman fiercely resented her arrival. Miss Conacher had made it a condition that she would not take a job from an Indian national but the woman seemed to believe the newcomer was effectively her replacement. And after the Scots missionary fell ill, for reasons that were initially unclear, it transpired that the woman had been attempting to poison her food on a daily basis. Fortunately, she was caught out and no lasting harm ensued, allowing the amiable nurse to continue her mission for decades to come, ultimately being associated with various projects over more than half a century.

The daughter of Torrance and Gertrude Conacher, whose family had served Edinburgh’s Holyrood Abbey Church for generations, she too had a lifelong association with the church. But her early ambitions to serve as a nurse in the mission field were initially thwarted: her mother preferred her to follow a secretarial career and a health condition put paid to her first attempt at nurse training.

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After leaving James Gillespie’s High School for Girls she did as her mother wished and completed secretarial training before working for Edinburgh solicitors Nightingale and Bell. She later applied to train as a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary but was rejected – the result of having suffered an asthma attack.

She then took the opportunity to visit former neighbours who had emigrated to America and spent a couple of years there working in Worcester, Massachusetts for the Development Corporation of Israel and a large manufacturing company. Returning home in 1957 she applied once again to do nursing and was accepted, going on to do midwifery training at Rotten Row Maternity Hospital in Glasgow. It was at a Foreign Mission rally in Glasgow in 1962 that she heard a speaker ask: “Are you the nurse God is calling to Santalia?” and she knew then that that area of north-east India, home to the Santals, was to be her destination.

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In 1963 she joined the Bamdah Eye Clinic in Bihar, working mainly out in the community, and moving to a larger dispensary in Pokharia, Bihar a few years later. In addition to picking up the local Santali language, she was sent to language school in the foothills of the Himalayas to learn Hindi and became very proficient.

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A great cat lover, while studying there she was given a kitten which she popped into her basket and took home. She would continue to have an affinity with cats for many years.

In 1975, with violence increasing in the area, she was urged to move to the larger Evangelical Mission Hospital in Tilda. There, after surviving the poisoning attempt, she was to administer and improve the School of Nursing, along with the hospital’s nursing services, until 1993. In those 18 years she grew a little-known institution into a renowned facility.

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She was also involved with the Mid India Board of Examiners of Nursing, travelling extensively, often alone. But with her friend and fellow missionary Ruth Hofstetter she got the chance to take a trip to the Similipal game reserve in Orissa, now Odisha, state. There she had an unforgettable experience meeting a tame Royal Bengal tiger, Kairi, rescued as a cub after being snatched by poachers. The tigress lived at a forest bungalow with the reserve director’s family and greeted Miss Conacher by licking her legs and grunting a welcome. It was, she said, remarkable to be face to face with the majestic beast but feel no fear, as the deep rumble of the tiger’s purr rattled the cups and saucers on the table as they took tea.

In the 1993 New Year’s Honours she was made an MBE for nursing and welfare services to the community in Madhya Pradesh and that same year, very reluctantly, she left India when she was retired, as was customary, at 60. But Miss Conacher was determined to either return or serve elsewhere, an ambition she achieved when she was recruited to help establish a clinic in Tanzania. Later she was invited by the Church of Scotland World Mission to go to Chennai to assess the viability of a Church of South India Rainy Nursing School development to be considered for support by the Church of Scotland Guild.

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She also helped the team cataloguing a new library at Edinburgh’s Rutherford House research and study centre and, through this work, helped to reorganise the library of Delhi Bible Institute. This involved spending two or three months most years between 2003 and 2015 helping to digitise and build the catalogue there. That led to invitations to visit the church and hospital in Tilda again. She had also been a missionary partner to Wardie Church, Edinburgh since 1981. The congregation raised thousands for Tilda, including £21,500 for a new female ward which was opened by Miss Conachie in 2012, where a plaque commemorates the occasion.

Back in Edinburgh she retained many fond memories and reminders of her time in India. She never married and is survived by her nephew Stewart and his wife, a great niece and her sister-in-law Betty.

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