Wendy Grey Rogerson had been nursing in Tongud—a tiny settlement in the remote interior of what was then British North Borneo—for just over a week when a young man turned up at her clinic in a desperate state. Ulor was being carried by his father after a long journey from a distant village that had involved travelling both by boat and on foot through the difficult jungle terrain. His left knee was the size of a football, making walking impossible. A young father in his twenties, he was also accompanied by his wife and small child.

Ulor had a high fever and was deteriorating fast. Wendy suspected septicaemia, a potentially fatal infection. He needed to get to a hospital, but the nearest one was in Sandakan, five days away down the Kinabatangan river. Wendy had travelled to Tongud from Sandakan by that very route 10 days earlier, and she feared it was too long and arduous a trip for her patient to bear, especially in the dugout canoe at their disposal. But she was a nurse, not a doctor, and had only the most basic medical equipment in the clinic that she ran single-handedly on an Anglican mission. There was one means of swift communication with the outside world: a tele-radio, via which, at pre-arranged times, mission staff could speak to the priest in Sandakan. Fortunately, they were due to make contact the next morning. Wendy described her patient and asked if a doctor could advise her as soon as possible about how to proceed. The reply came back a few hours later: She was to operate on Ulor without delay.

Today, aged 89, at her home in the British cathedral city of Durham, Wendy sounds calm and matter-of-fact about how she received this message, though she admits that it was a huge responsibility. “It was the only way to save his life,” she says. “I spent ages with my copy of Gray’s Anatomy [the medical textbook], identifying the blood vessels and nerves closest to the knee. I couldn’t help thinking that this was an area best left to the specialists, but I had little choice.”

She recruited the three other mission staff—Borneans Arnold and Andrew, and Australian Joan—to help her. But first, they prayed together.

“I gave Ulor a general anaesthetic using a mask sprayed with ethyl chloride,” she says. “In the end, the male members of my team were of little use, for as soon as I had incised the wound and thick pus began to emerge, they disappeared! Luckily Joan was less squeamish and was able to act as my assistant.”

Wendy cleaned the wound, inserted a drainage tube and stitched it. Now she could only keep an eye on her patient—and wait. Ulor stayed in the clinic for over a month, and Wendy proudly watched him gaining confidence as he took his first tentative steps. Months later, after he had returned to his village, Ulor came back to see Wendy and showed her how he could now run and hunt and do all the things he had been unable to do before: a satisfying result to an operation that would be the first of several she would perform during her time in Tongud.

‘Whom Shall I Send?’

So, how did a 30-year-old woman from Northeast England end up on an island on the equator at the other end of the world? It was a long way from everything she had known, in more than just distance. Yet, in some ways, she had been heading towards her mission there ever since she was a young girl.

Wendy grew up in Amble, a town on the North Sea coast, 30 miles north of Newcastle, where her father was the Church of England vicar. It was a rather solitary childhood. Her younger brother, to whom she was very close, was sent to boarding school, and she had few friends in the local area.

“I often had my nose in a book,” she remembers. “My mother gave me pamphlets to read about the missionaries Gladys Aylward in China and Mary Slessor in Nigeria. It may sound like heavy reading for a girl, but to me these were tales of adventure as well as of faith. Reading them, I longed to escape and have similar adventures of my own!”

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She decided to be a nurse, leaving home to follow her calling at London’s Charing Cross Hospital. After qualifying she returned to Newcastle, where she trained as a midwife, and then worked for several years as a district nurse and finally a health visitor. (In the UK, health visitors are qualified nurses or midwives who have taken additional training to work in the community, and who work in particular with families with preschool-age children.)

Wendy was enjoying her job and city lifestyle, and also found fulfillment in her various roles with her local church, where she sang in the choir, was a Girl Guide leader, and had a loyal circle of friends. One day she attended a talk about missionary work and was horrified to learn that large parts of the world had no doctors or nurses to serve them. But it was an article in a periodical she subscribed to, the Borneo Chronicle, that changed everything. In it she read about Father Arnold Puntang and catechist Andrew Kiri, two Dayaks from Sarawak, Borneo, who had moved to Tongud in a remote part of the North Borneo jungle to set up the first ever school in the interior.

Arnold and Andrew belonged to a different ethnic group to the Dusun people in Tongud and came from another part of the vast island (Borneo is the third largest island in the world), so this was a massive challenge for them too. Now they were looking for a doctor or nurse to join their team and begin medical work there. And the words they used—which Wendy recognized from Isaiah—touched her heart: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (6:8). Wendy felt as if Arnold and Andrew were calling out to her.

After a year at missionary college, she sailed from the UK to Borneo as a volunteer for the Anglican mission agency then known as SPG (which today is called USPG—United Society Partners in the Gospel). The voyage took a month. Embarking in Kuching on the west of the island, she spent time learning the ropes with other SPG nurses before sailing to Sandakan on the east coast, where she began to gather everything she would need for her clinic. Tongud, over 300 miles up the Kinabatangan River, was only accessible by boat and by far the most remote of all the places she had visited. There were no shops in Tongud—all food, along with personal and medical supplies, had to be taken on that journey.

“I got a shock when I saw my new home for the first time,” she admits. It was a hut, raised on wooden posts three feet from the ground (to keep out snakes and scorpions), with walls made of bark, a palm-leaf roof, and a floor of slatted bamboo. It had a tiny gas cooker, some wooden furniture made by Andrew, and very little else. A large oil drum collected rainwater for drinking and for washing. There was no electricity, no running water, no modern conveniences of any kind.

She was to share this dwelling with Joan, who had come from Tasmania to teach at the mission school. Efforts had been made to provide the young women with some privacy for their lavatory—a hole in the ground screened with a palm-leaf shelter, a short walk from the hut.

Comfort and Strength

As well as the school of 60 pupils and Tongud’s community of about 40 households, Wendy served whomever needed her in an area of jungle covering hundreds of square miles. Until her arrival, medicine had been administered by local witch doctors, and it required a great leap of faith on the part of the locals to put their trust in the white woman and the strange new treatments she gave. But it didn’t take long before people were flocking to the clinic—with many, like Ulor, making long and difficult journeys to get there.

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Since locals used the river for a toilet as well as for washing and drinking, dysentery was common, along with diseases that flourished amid unsanitary living conditions. Scabies, bronchitis, pneumonia, ringworm, hookworm, malaria, and malnutrition were all prevalent. So was a horrible disfiguring tropical disease called yaws. Wendy made health education a big part of her job, and she battled to bring vaccination programs to vulnerable groups. She also began a prenatal program and a health-visiting initiative.

Image: Photograph courtesy of Wendy Grey Rogerson

Wendy suffered in the tropical climate and was often ill herself. After countless bouts of tonsillitis she underwent the rather gruesome experience of having her tonsils removed while sitting on a chair in a modest doctor’s office in Sandakan, holding a bucket to retch into, with only a local anaesthetic to numb the pain.

“I recited the 23rd Psalm to myself, over and over,” she says.

In fact, Psalm 23 would provide comfort and strength on many occasions. Every few weeks Wendy would accompany Father Arnold to even more distant villages, where he would preach and she would hold a clinic. On these trips they often had to sleep out in the forest, where she was frightened by the noises made by wild animals close by.

“When I heard something that sounded like a tiger, I began reciting psalms in earnest,” she laughs.

As well as having her strong faith to sustain her, the companionship of Joan made the three-year placement easier. Living in such close proximity, and with only a curtain separating their beds, the pair shared the joys and frustrations of their daily lives. It was probably the most intimate relationship of Wendy’s life to this point. Regular stays in Sandakan when the clinic closed during the mission school’s vacation gave the pair much-needed breaks. The women would lodge in the boarding house of an Anglican girls’ school in the town, where they formed close friendships with the nuns and teachers who ran the school.

Despite the hardships and the illnesses she suffered, Wendy’s time in Tongud was one of the most precious experiences of her life. Today, nearly six decades later, she grows tearful when she remembers the day of her departure in October 1962. She was scheduled to return to the UK on furlough after her three-year posting, and while knowing there was still work to do in Tongud, she knew that, for the sake of her own health, it would be unwise to return. As she said her tearful goodbyes, she realized it would be the last time she would see many of these people—fellow mission workers, pupils, and villagers—who had come to mean so much to her.

However, she had no intention of returning to her old comfortable life, and she planned to serve in another part of the world—ideally one with a more temperate climate. These plans came to an abrupt end when, just 10 days after her return to the UK, she was introduced to a young priest named Colin Rogerson. After a whirlwind courtship, she was married four months later. So began a new—and equally rewarding—life as the wife of a Church of England priest, supporting her husband in his ministry and raising their two daughters, Catherine and Jane.

Joy Shines Out

When, as a family friend (my parents have known Wendy and Colin since I was a baby), I was given the chance to read Wendy's diaries, I was surprised to find myself devouring them as if they were the latest blockbuster! What had I been expecting? I’m not really sure, but certainly nothing as powerful, as surprising (sometimes shocking), or as moving as what I found on the neatly handwritten pages. Today, when it is fairly common for young people (and older ones, too, for that matter!) to take gap years and travel to remote parts of the world, it is easy to underestimate the courage it took to propel Wendy on her journey. But she was not going merely to broaden her horizons: to have fun and enjoy new experiences. Her reasons were founded in her Christian faith and her selfless desire to take her medical skills to a place where they were badly needed. And in the process she was giving up everything familiar and comfortable in a city that she loved.

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The Borneo Wendy arrived in was not the adventure holiday destination it is today, where tourists stay in eco-lodges and take escorted trips into the rainforest. It was somewhere altogether wilder, less-visited, and even unmapped. When Wendy travelled into the interior, she was often the first white person the local people had ever seen. Indeed, she recounts in her diary how one girl ran away screaming when she saw her!

She faced many dangers beyond those to her health—whitewater rafting wasn’t an expedition for thrill-seekers but her means of travelling from one place to another, just as we might hop in a car or taxi. Every trip to Sandakan included a potential threat to life, whether from an overcrowded vessel, flooded river, or rough sea crossing. Once, a man tried to break into the cabin where she slept when they were moored for the night. To say she had some lucky escapes is an understatement.

But while biting my nails and occasionally shuddering as I read about some of these experiences, I also found her account life-affirming. And indeed it is joy that shines out above all the sorrows and the difficult times. Wendy took joy in simple pleasures—her daily bath in the river with Joan after a hot and sticky day, baking bread, playing music on a battery-operated record player, sharing laughter with the local children.

And I marveled at how her faith in Jesus transcended differences and created friendships, some of which lasted a lifetime.

Wendy saved countless lives, not just on the (thankfully few) occasions when she had to assume the role of surgeon as she did for Ulor, but also through cleaning wounds, vaccinating the sick and vulnerable, advising on hygiene, and promoting prenatal care. Thanks to her, people lived to bear children or to carry on nurturing those they had.

With such a legacy, it is not surprising that when Wendy returned to Borneo with her daughter Catherine in 1985, 23 years after her departure, and then again in 2003 with her daughter Jane, people walked for miles to greet her and thank her for what she had done for them.

Barbara Fox is the co-author of Wendy Grey Rogerson’s autobiography, Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer (SPCK).

Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer
Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer
SPCK Publishing
256 pp., 17.0
Buy Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer from Amazon