Dr Kathleen Blackwood (’31)

Missionary and Doctor

Kathleen Katrine Blackwood was born in Sorell on October 27th 1914, to Anglican minister Reverend Donald Burns Blackwood and Ida Maria Blackwood (née Pitt).  Kathleen’s father served as a curate in Deloraine and at Holy Trinity, Hobart.  He was appointed rector of St Helen’s (1911-1913) and rector of Sorell (1913-15).  In 1915 Rev. Donald Blackwood enlisted in the Army Chaplain service and was later awarded the Military Cross “for fearless devotion to duty and conspicuous gallantry during the operations near Villers-Bretonneux 24/26 April, 1918”. 

Although his appointment as Senior Chaplain…permitted him to remain at Casualty Clearing Stations during operations and minister to wounded and dying outside the shelled area, this very gallant Chaplain was indefatigable in his efforts to comfort the wounded in the forward battle zone … On the second day and night of the operations, he was out with burials parties well in advance of Headquarters … working throughout the night in dangerous and shelled areas.

Rev. Blackwood was rector of Holy Trinity from 1924 to 1942, during which time he became a Canon of St David’s Cathedral in 1925 and Archdeacon of Hobart in 1929.  In 1942 Donald Blackwood was consecrated the third Bishop of Gippsland.

Kathleen was Dux of Collegiate in 1931 and after matriculation studied science at the University of Tasmania for one year.  She then transferred to the University of Melbourne and completed her medical exams in February 1937.  At the end of 1937, Kathleen was conferred with the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. She got the highest marks that year, and the media wanted to know how a woman could do better than the men. Her reply was that she loved God, always trying to set His day apart, never studying on Sunday, so her brain had a rest!  This was reported in many newspapers. She was awarded the Embley Medal for anaesthetics “in open competition with all finalists”.  Her first position was as a member of the medical staff at the Alfred Hospital. Her second appointment was at the Queen Victoria Women’s Hospital, Adelaide, where her speciality was eye work. 

Kathleen, her parents and sister, Marian (Mary) shared a calling to Christian mission.  Kathleen had started the Church Missionary Society League of Youth in Hobart. In 1939 the Tasmanian branch of the Church Missionary Society reported that the Venerable Archdeacon D.B. Blackwood’s daughter, Dr Kathleen Blackwood, had been accepted as a medical missionary and would be expected to be given a post in India.  Due to a shortage of funds caused by the outbreak of World War II, plans were put on hold until sufficient funds (£180 per year) required to support Kathleen’s work in India could be raised. 

In October 1940, Kathleen began work as a senior resident medical officer at the Royal Hobart Hospital while waiting for her overseas posting.  She later learned she was to be sent to the Church of England Missionary Hospital in Isfahan, Iran, which in WWII was then neutral.

Dr Blackwood was given a service of dismissal at her father’s church, Holy Trinity, Hobart, “the first of its kind in Tasmania.” The Mercury reported on 11 February 1941 that “her many friends will wish her well as she goes forth alone on this great mission”.  

On her arrival in Bandar Abbas, Iran, she was met by a group of men saying they had heard a doctor was on board, and could she come, as one of the women in their household was sick. She took her Doctor’s bag and followed them, down small dirt roads, with high walls on either side, until they arrived at a high walled compound, with the sick woman lying in the middle of it, surrounded by men. Kathleen diagnosed fluid on the lung which would need aspirating.  A long needle was produced from a nearby clinic, she inserted it into the lung, but it broke off as she did so. As she looked around at the men’s faces in the lamplight, she realised her situation: no one on the ship knew where she was, and she didn’t know the way back. With a quick prayer of “Father help me”, she was just able to get the broken part of the needle between her fingernails, and pull it out! Thank you, God. She learned from this never to use other people’s instruments, and always to let others know where she was!

A few days later, Kathleen was driven by an English missionary, “in an old-fashioned car … 360 miles inland to Kerman…The road crossed two ranges of mountains 15,000 feet high and two deserts.” 

Upon arrival, Kathleen was welcomed by the leading citizens of Kerman.  In a talk she gave in St John’s Hall, Launceston in 1947, she reported that in her hospital:

It is a normal daily occurrence for two doctors to treat 200 out-patients in one morning and often turn away another 100 patients. 

Dr Kathleen Blackwood

Dr Blackwood’s work in Iran was challenging and hard.  In November 1946 at St George’s Battery Point, she spoke of 

The ignorance of the people in relation to disease, (is) beyond understanding. Ignorance kills 80% of Iranian babies.  

However, despite the work being hard, God gave Kathleen an amazing aptitude for the language: she spoke Farsi perfectly. God also gave her a deep love for the Iranian people, especially the women.

The Mercury reported in 1943 that she had been seriously ill at Oran, but later recovered. In 1945 the Mercury printed a long article on the meeting of Kathleen with her brother, Flight Lieutenant Graham Blackwood, then serving in the RAAF.  Graham arrived in Kerman after a 6,000 mile “jaunt” which was made easier because those helping him on his way showed kindness because he was the brother of Dr Blackwood.  

In late 1946, Kathleen returned to Tasmania where she gave a series of illustrated talks on her work in Iran.  She also prepared for her wedding on December 27, 1946 to the Rev. Philip Taylor, son of the Rev. Stephen Taylor of Mount Colah, Sydney.

Philip had worked with the Church Missionary Society at Oenpelli, Groote Eylandt, and Roper River since 1927. He met and worked with Sister Laura Gamble of Tasmania on Groote Eylandt, and they were married in May 1936. Very sadly, she died of complications during pregnancy in Katherine on 19 February 1938.   In 1940, Phillip began training for the ministry at Ridley College, Melbourne, being made curate of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sale and ordained by Bishop Donald Blackwood, Kathleen’s father, the Bishop of Gippsland, in 1946. So when Kathleen returned from Iran that year, there was Philip, living in Bishopscourt!

One funny story tells of a trip to a Church Missionary Society conference in Sydney. Kathleen and Philip travelled by train together, being engaged, but carefully got out different doors in Sydney. The mission still did not know of their plans. Kathleen had gone to have a wash just before alighting, and must have taken her ring off. As they walked along the station with the CMS dignitaries, a porter came rushing toward them calling out “Miss, Miss, you forgot your ring!”  So it all came out into the open!  Kathleen and Philip were married in St Paul’s Cathedral, Sale, in a service conducted by her father.  They spent their honeymoon in Tasmania before leaving to take up their missionary and medical work in Iran in 1947, working in Kerman, Isfahan, Yazd, and Shiraz. Ruth Margaret was born in 1948 in Kerman, and Stephen Blackwood in Shiraz in 1951. 

Kathleen and Philip were an amazing team together. Philip was very practical, able to build anything, fly planes, pull teeth, cut hair, (he also brought the first windmills into Iran), so Kathleen was able to teach him to give anaesthetics, cut off limbs and catch babies. One of the first blood transfusions they gave together used a funnel, a piece of gauze, and the tubing from a stethoscope!

One story saw all the lights go out in the middle of an operation on a village chief’s wife, and the surgery continued by lamplight. The lady lived. In gratitude, the hospital was given a generator, and a beautiful Persian carpet was delivered to Kathleen and Philip’s home. It is on Ruth Margaret’s floor today.

Most of the homes and hospitals in old Iran had a cool pool in the middle of the garden. That was true in the Kerman hospital complex. One day Kathleen was so hot after working long hours, she ran and jumped in, white Doctor’s coat and all!  She loved life; her joy and happiness splashed onto those around her!

In Suzanne Perry’s article, Women Medical Graduates and Mission Service published in July 2000, Perry writes that Kathleen had taught another female medical missionary about the proper handling of difficult obstetric cases and some of the extreme gynaecological problems common in a developing world.  At times, when (the missionary) agonized over patients who came too late for treatment, or those who did not survive treatment, Kathleen said:

Remember Jesus didn’t heal all the sick ones in Palestine in his ministry. We have to be faithful, to do what we can with our limited strength, then leave the results with Him.

Dr Kathleen Blackwood

Perry writes that Kathleen Blackwood suffered a ‘crisis of faith’ in the medical work of the mission when, during the 1940s, she was frequently left in charge of a hospital that was chronically underfunded and understaffed.   Often she had neither the drugs nor the equipment to do what was needed to save lives.  There was also inadequate nursing support after surgery. 

Kathleen reported to the Church Missionary Society in 1954 that “conditions in Iran were difficult” because her work had lately been confined to a radius of four miles from the town.  Before, she and fellow doctors were allowed to tend patients in many villages along the Persian Gulf.  

This was during the time of the Mosaddegh Revolution. In 1952, Kathleen, Philip and the children escaped from Iran by plane, refuelling from oil drums strategically placed in the desert. They made their way to Pakistan, then to Australia, where they stayed during 1953, catching up with family and friends. 

It was not possible to return to Iran, so in 1954, they joined the staff of the Zenana (Women’s only) Mission Society Hospital at Sukkur in Pakistan.  Sukkur was in the Sindh desert, which had been appropriated for Britain by Major General Charles Napier, who, so the story goes, walked his elephant up the steps of the 40-room bungalow opposite the hospital the Taylor family and other staff were to live in; supposedly sending a message to Queen Victoria saying “I have sinned” (i.e. I have Sindh)! 

The nine years in Sukkur were very fulfilling for Kathleen and Philip: God had brought a special staff team together, with Doctors from Australia and America, nursing Sisters from Australia and New Zealand and a wonderful Pharmacist from New Zealand.  The Taylors were seconded to the New Zealand Church Missionary Society during their years in Sukkur, as the New Zealand CMS was responsible for the work in the Sindh.  New Zealand wonderfully collected and sent money to build an outpatient and pharmacy building, which greatly enhanced the work.

The hospital’s nickname was “Drip Drop Inn” as initially it was seen as a place of last resort. Most patients needed a drip by the time they arrived! The first blood transfusion given in the hospital used Kathleen’s blood, as there were no other matches.  There was also no hotel in the city, so travellers almost always asked to stay in the bungalow. Once, a couple who had robbed other hospitals were ensconced in a guest room in the bungalow; it needed all Kathleen’s wisdom to know how to deal with that situation!  She managed to get them into the hospital, where the police arrested them. Another young family arrived on a motorbike and sidecar, headed for Iran in winter. The Taylors were able to persuade them that winter in Iran with a small child in a sidecar would not be safe, so they stayed three months, doing maintenance and sewing in exchange for board. The Taylor children enjoyed the company of the child!

God gave Kathleen great wisdom in dealing with all sorts of issues and people:  patients, local nursing staff, expatriate staff, workers in the hospital, city officials, missionaries from other organizations to name a few. She was also a wonderful mother to her children, reading to them and praying with them before bed unless there was an emergency, putting on wonderful Birthday parties, and having special Bible storytimes in the big bed in the morning, while having an early cup of tea and delicious bananas brought by the faithful, turbaned cook, Bhutta.

Philip and Kathleen had brought a well-set-up mobile medical unit with them, enabling monthly visits to nearby villages. Doctors and nurses took turns going to the villages, with Philip driving; local evangelists presented the Gospel using visual aids and song.  Patients came from far and wide on ox carts and camel carts and donkeys to see the Doctor, and many were able to be helped. The Taylor children loved taking part in these trips and made themselves useful!  These village visits were a very significant part of the outreach work in the Sindh.

When the temperatures started to reach the high 40s and low 50s, the hospital was closed and the Taylors and other ex-pat staff went to the beautiful town of Murree in the foothills of the Himalayas. (This policy was brought in after Philip’s sister, Dr Joan Taylor, working in the same hospital in the 1930s, stayed in Sukkur over the summer and died.)  Philip had overseen the building of two duplexes, the Marsden Cottages, for CMS personnel to use. Missionaries came to Murree from all over Pakistan for the summer months. Kathleen and Philip had language lessons there, and Kathleen was on the roster to help in the medical clinic for the missionaries. Meeting up with old missionaries years later, Ruth Margaret heard many stories of how Kathleen had helped heal them. She was a gifted diagnostician.

The Taylor family left Pakistan in 1963.

In the last years of her life, Kathleen resided in Rosedale, Gippsland, Victoria, with Philip and the children. She was Rosedale’s much-loved resident Doctor, and Philip the loved Minister of St Mark’s Anglican Church. It was a precious time, being one of the very few times they lived together as a nuclear family. 

One story of interest is of Kathleen waking one morning from a God-given dream, where she had been shown what was wrong with a farmer who had been unwell for many years. Early in the morning she drove her little Hillman Minx to the farm, and told the farmer and his wife the treatment needed to cure him. He recovered rapidly, and the couple were so grateful. Recently, Kathleen’s grandson, Andrew, working in Malaysia, welcomed a new staff member. He came from Rosedale, and Kathleen had saved his life as a baby, diagnosing pyloric stenosis, and organizing the air ambulance to take him to the Children’s Hospital, where he recovered!

Kathleen was killed in a car accident outside the Taylor’s home on 16 October, 1967, three days before her daughter’s 19th birthday, four days before her son’s 16th birthday, and four months after the death of her father.  Kathleen’s death was reported in the Collegiate School Magazine of April 1968.   Her funeral was the largest the town had ever seen. About 500 people from all over Australia came to it, including Church, mission and government dignitaries. All the shops were shut, and people, school children, scouts and guides lined the streets. At the service, great thanks was given to God for the life of Kathleen Katrine Blackwood Taylor, and the service closed with the Sindh theme song, “How Good is the God We Adore”.

Post script    

Philip married Sister Gwenyth Baxter from New Zealand, who had worked with Kathleen and Philip at the hospital in Sukkur, in January, 1975. Kathleen’s son, Stephen, was killed in a motorbike accident in November 1974, one month before his wedding. Ruth Margaret married David Roy Mills, and served with CMS in Indonesia for 12 years.  They have two children: Andrew, married to Natalie, née Passmore, with Beth, Jared and Elliot who have lived and served in Indonesia and Malaysia; and Kathleen, married to Stephen Andrews, with Zoe, Isaac and Asher, who have lived and served in Mauritius. Kathleen would have had six great-grandchildren!

Information for this article was provided to St Michael’s Collegiate by Ruth Mills in 2017.