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Biographical entry Ludlow, Joyce Rewcastle (1905 - 2006)

MBE 1952; MRCS 1930; FRCS 1931; MB BS Lond 1929; LRCP 1929.

24 July 1905
Sidcup, Kent, UK
5 January 2006
Poole, Dorset, UK
General surgeon


Joyce Rewcastle Ludlow was a surgeon who spent her working life in Nigeria. She was born Joyce Rewcastle Woods in Sidcup, Kent, on 24 July 1905, the daughter of James Rewcastle Woods, a minister, and Una Marion Pierce née Couch. Both parents were keen members of the Temperance Movement. Joyce studied medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, where she qualified in 1930. She passed the FRCS the following year, the 22nd woman to become a fellow of the College.

She went at once to Nigeria to work at Ilesha Hospital. There she met the Reverend Richard Nelson Ludlow, a Methodist missionary, whose training had included a three-month crash course in surgery. Nelson Ludlow's sister Elsie was working in that hospital as a nurse, and ultimately became its matron. Inevitably Joyce and Nelson found themselves working together. Eventually Nelson popped the question, to receive the answer 'Yes, provided you will see to the Tilley lamp'. They were married on his first leave in Dublin in April 1933 and, after a very brief honeymoon in Switzerland, returned to Nigeria to be 'partners in pioneering' for a lifetime. Nelson learned dispensing and how to give the anaesthetic while Joyce was operating: in exchange Joyce would take services and preach when needed.

Joyce insisted on extending the work of the hospital into the districts in the hope of detecting remediable diseases at an earlier stage and for this purpose they devised a mobile operating theatre that could be towed behind their elderly Chevrolet, and set up a chain of village dispensaries. Together they built their own house of unbaked mud bricks, established some 25 schools for women, built their own looms, taught the local people how to weave, organised the building of new roads and made long treks into the country on foot, by canoe, and later by car.

To support this activity on a salary of £3 per week from the Missionary Society, Nelson raised funds for new buildings by importing ancient harmoniums and organs that had been thrown out by churches in England, learned how to mend them, and sold them in Nigeria, eventually setting up a regular workshop for this.

The tough and difficult life was later described in Nelson's moving book Partners in pioneering, which was privately published by his son. It was not without its hilarious incidents: their car was accidently shot by a hunter who mistook its headlights for the eyes of some giant jungle creature. They had no refrigerator until 1939. They had two sons and a daughter who went with them everywhere but, as with so many of that generation, they suffered agonies when it became necessary to send the children to England to be educated.

During their first leave after the war they were given an ex-Army ambulance which they rebuilt as a better mobile operating theatre cum school, kitchen, cinema and dispensary, which was to serve them for the next 10 years. As well as a hunt for superannuated harmoniums, they obtained 90 church bells that had been preserved by the London Fire Service after the Blitz, together with 1,000 hand-bells formerly used by Air Raid Patrol wardens, for use in the new schools they planned to set up. Ancient brass instruments were begged for the new brass band they intended to set up.

They organised the building of a chain of rural dispensaries and a new hospital, which was opened in 1945. They organised play schools for their own and local children, and were enthusiastic proponents of literacy campaigns.

Joyce and Nelson retired from Nigeria in 1952. Their partnership went on: Nelson continued with his ministry, while Joyce did locums. They developed a method of 'duologues', taking turns to preach. These proved to be very popular and the team were much in demand. A member of the congregation told Nelson, 'My goodness your wife can talk!' It was no news to him.

On their return to England Joyce was awarded the MBE in 1952 for her outstanding medical work in Nigeria. Nelson Ludlow died in 1998. Joyce died in Poole on 5 January 2006 at the age of 100.

John Blandy

The Royal College of Surgeons of England