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EMMS Internatiional 1901
EMMS Internatiional 1901

175 Years of Mission and Medicine

Thursday August 18 2016

Gary Brough reflects on the long and colourful history of EMMS International, an Edinburgh-based Christian healthcare charity.


In 1841, The Edinburgh Association for Sending Medical Aid to Foreign Countries was founded.

Outside of China, this was the first medical missionary society in the world, and at the time, the concept of doctors being missionaries was a new one. In 1843, the Society was renamed as the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society.

In its early days, the society laid out two primary objectives: firstly, to train physicians to become medical missionaries; and secondly to change the church’s view about medical mission and to convince them that this work was an authentic form of mission.

The vision and work of EMMS continues to this day.

Early Outreach

From 1851, the society began to provide bursaries to students studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

The first EMMS graduates went overseas in the 1850s to India and Ireland and over the following 100 years, 440 doctors had been trained and served in medical missions in China, the Middle East and Africa.

The missionaries were being sent by various churches and agencies, one of the largest being the Church of Scotland who sent out 47 EMMS-trained medics. The first of them was John Hutchison who, upon graduating in 1871, travelled to Chamba, North India and was still in service there in 1936.

John H Deane, who graduated in 1881, was one of the first EMMS students to head to Nyasaland (now Malawi). The links between Scotland and Malawi continue to this day.

Alongside their university studies, these students had the opportunity to hone their practical skills at the society’s “Cowgate Medical Missionary Dispensary” which was founded in 1858. This training institution was an incredible example of integrated mission – many students lived on site, with the clinics below, serving the poor communities around the Cowgate, Grassmarket and West Port.

All of this was underpinned by prayer and a conviction that they were showing, in their practical way, the transforming power of the Gospel.

The dispensary became The Livingstone Memorial Medical Training Institute in 1878, in honour of Dr David Livingstone, a corresponding member of the Society.


In 2002, the organisation decided to create two separate charities: these became EMMS International and sister charity EMMS Nazareth (The Nazareth Trust)*.

Today, EMMS International’s programmes focus on Malawi, India and Nepal, as well as a smaller programme in Edinburgh. The work is centred around three key areas: providing palliative care, supporting maternal and child health and fighting diseases.

In Malawi, our partners are putting an end to people enduring avoidable pain and unnecessary suffering by improving end of life care. They are now working to provide the first degree-level qualification in palliative care as well as training church-workers and volunteers to provide spiritual support.

In Bihar, India’s poorest state, babies die of easily treatable conditions like jaundice because their mothers don’t receive the care they deserve. Our partners are working to show that every life is valued by improving the care of mothers and babies.

In the aftermath of last year’s devastating earthquakes in Nepal, our partners provided emergency relief but now they are working to build a stronger and healthier future.

EMMS International is indebted to the friendship of individuals and congregations within the Church of Scotland. This August Lynda Tulloch, Session Clerk at Polwarth Church of Scotland and Bill Duncan, Elder at Alloway Church, join an intrepid team taking on our TriMalawi Challenge. They will bike, hike and Kayak in Malawi to raise vital funds to improve healthcare there.

A hub of active churches from Kirkcaldy presbytery come together to host Bike and Hike, an annual fundraising event. Church’s like Inverness East are partnering with communities in Malawi to stop the spread of HIV.

A year of thanksgiving

A reception was held at Edinburgh City Chambers in April, as part of the anniversary celebrations. Further events are scheduled, including a Thanksgiving and Vision Service on November 27in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, to which everyone is warmly invited.

You can get a glimpse of both the historic and current work of EMMS International at a special free exhibition throughout August in Edinburgh’s Central Library. Artefacts from the archive will be on display alongside images of current projects.

For more on EMMS International and the anniversary events visit If your church would like to get involved by hosting the exhibition or an anniversary talk, please don’t hesitate to contact or 0131 313 3828.

*A separate article on the work of The Nazareth Trust will be published at a later date.

This article is an abridged version of a feature in August’s Life and Work. Subscribe here.