Agnes and Hoffy – Missionary Dreams

While studying the history of Danish academic connections with Glasgow University, it soon became clear that it is largely about men and not surprisingly, seeing the industry and geography of Denmark, centered on the naval profession.  In 1908 however three female Danish students attended the University, all studying Medicine: Christine Larsen, Julia Elise Hoffman and Agnes Rothe. Because of the novelty of the three, both in their chosen line of academic study and as the only female students in 37 years of Danish-Glaswegian exchange, they instantly drew my attention.

It was especially the relationship between Agnes and Elise which provided room for imagination. While Christine studied senior anatomy at Glasgow for only one year, Elise and Agnes stayed in Glasgow for three years, on an exchange from Edinburgh University, and their names appear in the archival records almost interchangeably. For three years Elise and Agnes lived together in a tenement house on Ruthven Street and studied almost all the same classes.

Agnes Rothe, published in Koch, Hans, 1916. Agnes Rothe, et livsbillde. 11th ed. Kirkelig Foreing for Den Indre Mission I Danmark.

Upon attaining a copy of published letters written by Agnes during her time in Scotland, the extent of this friendship finally became clearer to me. Agnes was a diligent writer and corresponded with her friend when they were apart. Both Agnes and Elise (or “Hoffy” as she was referred to as by her university friends) were deeply religious, a subject which united them. From a Danish perspective the religious life of Edinburgh and Glasgow was hard to come to terms with.  In a letter to Agnes mother she complains “The missionary houses are for the poor, the church for the rich, one Sunday school for the children of the rich, and another for the children of the poor – in the same church! There is something rotten in the Christian thinking where such things happen” (Glasgow, 31 October 1909). In many letters to follow Hoffy and Agnes discuss the difficulties of “maintaining ones faith” in Scotland.

The women’s last year at Glasgow University was spent studying Midwifery; it seems this was the favorite subject of both Agnes and Hoffy. Hoffy even went on to win an academic award for her work in the Midwifery class. They undertook their practical placement together in Anderston, Glasgow.  “We [Hoffy and Agnes] moved here last Friday and have so far 3 mothers and 3 babies to look after. […] We heard that the police never walk out on the streets here alone. But other people (two of our patients) tells us: ‘we are often scared to walk out during the night, you never have to be afraid. Doctors and nurses have nothing to fear, as long as they wear their uniforms – this protects them’.  We have our task to perform and they know us, they do not want to hurt us – even when they are prepared to hurt each other” (Letter for “Aunt L”, 1909).

Agnes, who had dreamt of becoming a missionary worker since her early 20’s, found this aspiration shared by Hoffy. They regularly took part in missionary meetings at Queen Margaret Halls and spoke of possible travels to India or China. Hoffy, upon finishing her degree, did travel out to Bangalore under the supervision of Professor L.P Larsen in January 2013. Agnes, who struggled with ill health all her life, was to her great disappointment held back for one year.  During Hoffy and Agne’s last days together in Scotland, Agnes writes to her mother “This evening me and H. are going ‘for the last time’ down to the settlements. There are many ‘last times’ these days! And it is a bit hard to part, when you for 7 years have been together and rejoiced over the same things and struggled together, while at the same time travelling together – and often fought together” (15 December 1912).

Those “last times” would in the end truly be last times. On the 24th of January Agnes writes to Hoffy in Bangalore:   “My dear good friend, how I wish from the bottom of my heart that we shall be allowed to work together, just as we like to, in the future. But Dida, I have surrendered in that too. I will not do my will if it is not God’s!”.  On the 31 of January Agnes suddenly dies from gastro intestinal bleeding. (8th of February 1913, The British Journal of Medicine)

The friend who was with Agnes in her last hour later told her parents that she had spoken about both of them and Hoffy before she passed away. It seems that Hoffy did not make it back in time for Agnes’ funeral, in a letter address to her from a mutual friend it is written: “She looks so soft, so full of peace and solemn. We put some lilies in her hands. […] Hoffy; she belonged to Christ in her life and in her death, and now she is his for eternity”.

Hoffy return to the UK for a few years after this, but in 1915 she went back to India and began her work with The Danish Missionary Hospital in Tamil-Nadu. Although there are little traces of her time in Tamil-Nadu it is likely that she had an influence on shaping the practice. When she arrived at the hospital it was just newly established and for four years she was the only qualified physician working in it.  In 1919, however, Hoffy’s younger sister Lily passed away back in Denmark. Hoffy immediately returned to foster her sister’s five children, and a year later she even married her sister’s widower Gunnar Le Cour. Gunnar and Hoffy lived together in the family home Cypressgården (Cypress House) and went on to have another three children together. She named her youngest daughter the Indian name Siromani.  Hoffy died in her home country in February 1943, exactly 30 years after Agnes.

[A special acknowledgment and thanks to Jens Kristian Ersbøll for enlightening me about Agnes medical condition.]

By Edith Irina Halvarsson, MA Sociology, Sweden, Club21 project Denmark.

Edith’s full blogathon entry can be found here.


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