Thoburn, Isabella (1840-1901)

American Methodist missionary and educator in India

Born in St. Clairsville, Ohio, of immigrant parents from Ireland, Thoburn, became a teacher. In 1866 her brother James Thoburn, a Methodist missionary in India, wrote to her, “How would you like to come and take charge of a school [for girls] if we decide to make the attempt?” She replied that she would come just as soon as a way was opened for her to do so, but the Missionary Society of the church was unwilling to send unmarried women. When the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1869 in Boston, Mass., the first missionary they appointed was Isabella Thoburn to India; then Clara A. Swain, M.D. was appointed to join her as a medical missionary. The two single women sailed from Boston on Nov. 3, 1869, and arrived in Bombay on January 7, 1870.

Assigned to the city of Lucknow where her brother was also based, Thoburn began a program of education for Indian women that would lead eventually to the creation of the first Christian college for women in Asia. She began with six girls in one room in the bazaar in April 1870. This developed into a boarding school, then a high schol, and in 1886 the college began which she named Lucknow Woman’s College.

She was in the United States on furlough from 1880 to 1881, and again, in ill health, from 1886 to 1896. During this latter period she became one of the first deaconesses in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and worked with Lucy Rider Meyer in the Chicago Training School for a year. Then in Cincinnati, Ohio, she helped to found the Deaconess Home and Training School and also Christ Hospital. In 1891 she returned to her educational work in India until 1899 when she came back to the United States to raise funds for the college. After giving three addresses at the Ecumenical Missionary Conference in New York in 1900 she returned to India. The following year she died of cholera and was buried in Lucknow. After her death the college she founded was renamed Isabella Thoburn College, which is now the women’s college of Lucknow University.

Gerald H. Anderson, “Thoburn, Isabella,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 664-65.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Isabella Thoburn wrote many articles fro the Indian Witness, Heathen Woman’s Friend, and Woman’s Missionary Friend.

Digital Secondary

Thoburn, J. M. Life of Isabella Thoburn. Cincinnati: Jennings and Pye, 1903.

Oldham, William Fitzjames. Isabella Thoburn. Chicago: Jennings & Pye, 1902.


Thoburn, Isabella. The Lucknow Woman’s College. Delaware, Ohio: s.n, 1896.

_____. Phoebe Rowe. Cincinnati: Curts & Jenings, 1899.


Gesling, Linda Joyce. Gender, Ministry, and Mission: The Lives of James and Isabella Thoburn, Brother and Sister in Methodist Service. Thesis (Ph. D., Religion and American Culture)–Northwestern University, 1996.

McDowell, William Fraser. Effective Workers in Needy Fields. New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1902.