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Hanson, Helen Beatrice de Rastricke (1874–1926), physician, missionary, and feminist, was born at Horsham Road, Dorking, Surrey, on 6 January 1874, the second of four children of Edward Hanson (1842–1924) and his wife, Caroline Ann, née Offord (1844–1930). Her father, a bank clerk who became a bank branch manager, had spent some of his childhood in Santiago, Chile. Although themselves Baptists, her parents were broad-minded evangelicals and members of the Plymouth Brethren, whose circles included many Anglicans. They were also supporters of women's suffrage, and the Hansons attended many rallies as a family, although parents and daughters diverged on the question of militancy. The parents' emphasis on service and philanthropy and their encouragement of their daughters' independence—professional, political, familial, and spiritual—shaped every stage of Helen's career, activism, and devotional life.

The family moved several times with Edward Hanson's employment, and Helen Hanson spent her early years in Richmond, Maldon, and Bognor Regis. Her teachers and schoolfriends described her as an eager and inquisitive student who wrote prolifically from an early age. Aged fourteen she became a boarder at Westcombe School, Brighton, which was run by her maternal cousins the Misses Stevens. While there she decided on a medical career. She passed the junior and senior Cambridge local exams with distinctions in 1889, and in 1893 matriculated at the London School of Medicine for Women (having also won a scholarship at Bedford College that she did not take up). She received her MB in 1901, and her MD, BS in 1904. Her first posts were at St Pancras Infirmary, the Hospital for Women and Children at Bristol, and the Morpeth and Menston county asylums, before she embarked on medical mission work in India.

In 1905 Hanson qualified for the certificate of the London School of Tropical Medicine. This specialization reflected the London School of Medicine for Women's emphasis on imperial service; Mary Scharlieb, her obstetrics and gynaecology professor and lifelong role model, had been a student and lecturer at Madras Medical College. Hanson was one of many graduates who went on to work in India, although her decision to do so via missionary work seems to have been somewhat more unusual, given that many professional medical women remained suspicious of missionary medicine. But for her, the calls to medical and mission work were inextricable, because of the gendered sphere of the zenana—literally, those parts of the house given over to women—in which both conversion and medical care supposedly took place among Muslims and high-caste Hindus. After a send-off at Exeter Hall in October 1905, she sailed for India with the Zenana Bible and Medical Missionary Society. She joined the staff of the Kinnaird Memorial Hospital in Lucknow, where she quickly learned Urdu. In 1908 she took charge of the hospital when the resident male head left on furlough; she also briefly ran hospitals in Benares and Jaunpur. She returned home in 1909 and health prevented her subsequent return to India.

Although Hanson spent comparatively little of her career in India, those four years profoundly influenced her spiritual life as well as her professional development. Baptized in the same year that she sat for the Cambridge exams (1889), she did not formally join the Church of England until her return from India, but she had wrestled with her denominational persuasion before leaving. Frustrated that ‘her creed was inadequate to her need’, she asked her cousin (wife of the rector of St Edmund's, Lombard Street, where she was later confirmed) for reading suggestions, and was recommended Charles Gore's Lux Mundi (Marston, 84). The deep impression which Gore's theology of incarnation made on her was enriched by her encounters with South Asian mystical traditions. She wrote that
in England one feels one is a body possessed of a soul; in India, it is the other way about … There is something in India that promotes mysticism and the culture of the soul, and opposes materialism. Coming into contact with non-Christian religions—Hinduism especially—has … left me with a far greater conception of God. (ibid., 37–8)
She went on to observe that non-western conceptions of God did not depend on missionaries for their legitimacy, and that religious encounters can have a broadening and tempering effect on orthodoxy.Over the course of her career Hanson joined a number of voluntary associations that merged social consciousness and political activism, including the University of London Suffrage Society, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the Women's Freedom League, the Industrial Christian Fellowship, the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, and the League of Nations Union. She was among over 200 demonstrators arrested at a protest in Parliament Square in November 1911 organized by the WSPU; she was convicted under the name Helen Rice and served five days' imprisonment. Her most sustained energies were devoted to the Church League for Women's Suffrage, an Anglican organization that was committed to extending the franchise to women until their partial enfranchisement in 1918, when it was renamed the League of the Church Militant and it switched its objects to universal suffrage and women's ordination. She attended its founding meeting in 1909 and remained a lifelong member. Her missionary and medical service abroad had convinced her that the suffrage movement had missed an opportunity in the untapped source of missionaries. In 1910 she published a pamphlet for the Church League for Women's Suffrage, From East to West: Women's Suffrage in Relation to Foreign Missions, in which she called on missionaries and suffragists to join forces in a united front for women's emancipation. She felt that the missionary and women's movements had helped one another through their parallel expansion of education and professionalization, their twin roots in Christian philanthropy, and their propagation of the ideals of emancipation and social justice outside Britain. She was also a contributor to other feminist journals and to the British Medical Journal.

After her return from India, Hanson became assistant school medical officer for the public health department of the London county council, a post she held for the duration of her medical career excepting the war years. When the war broke out in 1914, Hanson joined the British Red Cross Society and the St John Ambulance, serving in Antwerp, Cherbourg, and Serbia. In 1916 she was transferred to the RAMC (specifically the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit), and served with them in Malta, Salonika, and Constantinople. This wartime service earned her several decorations, including the British war medal, Victory medal, 1914 star, Serbian Red Cross medal, and order of St Sava, fifth class. After her return at the end of the war, she served as honorary secretary for the League of the Church Militant, and then became its treasurer in 1922.

Hanson always hoped to return to overseas mission work, despite its incompatibility with her health, and she was particularly moved by the ‘world call’, a missionary recruitment campaign early in 1926 that focused especially on the need to expand women's ministries. She died later that year, on 6 July 1926, on the way to St John and St Elizabeth's hospital, St John's Wood, London, from a fractured skull and other injuries sustained after being knocked down and run over by a motor car. A requiem service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and she was buried in St Marylebone cemetery (later East Finchley cemetery). She never married.

Elizabeth Prevost

Sources  

E. L. Marston, Helen Hanson: a memoir (1928) · BMJ, 2/3421 (31 July 1926), 230 · E. E. Prevost, The communion of women: missions and gender in colonial Africa and the British metropole (2010) · A. Burton, ‘Contesting the zenana: the mission to make “lady doctors for India”, 1874–1885’, Journal of British Studies, 35 (1996), 368–97 · E. Crawford, The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866–1928 (1999) · census returns, 1881, 1891, 1901 · b. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£7923 10s. 8d.: probate, 7 Sept 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales