27 December 2009


Martha, Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital, ca. 1950

My mother was set free today, at the age of ninety-two and a half, the last fourteen months completely bed-ridden, the last five years essentially blind. My brother and his wife kept her in their home, gave her exceptional, loving care.

These years of captivity were so wrong.  This was a woman delighted to be told she resembled a butterfly. Always moving. She loved dancing, though as a Baptist she couldn't. A petite Southern lady -- always a lady, and like the archetypal Southern lady, tough, unable to understand "you can't" -- who intended to become a professional organist, and who became instead a missionary doctor.  She thought, when she and my father arrived at the Ogbomosho Baptist Hospital in September 1946, that she was to take care of obstetrics and gynecology.  Those were the good days, when she had some preparation for what she encountered.

The picture above is of my mother in the women's ward of the hospital. For long periods of time she was the only doctor for a million square miles, and most days, even when she did surgery, she saw two hundred patients in clinic.  The first four years there was no electricity -- my father put that in, for the hospital and the mission station -- and night emergencies occurred in the presence of kerosene lamps, night surgery with the headlights from a car. Every single night she was wakened at least once by the distant knock of a bicycle pedal against the frame, the waver of a lantern, as a hospital messenger brought word of an emergency that couldn't wait till morning.

At every chance she got, she pushed oranges, fingernail brushes, beans. Nutrition, sanitation, and the difference between right and wrong. She taught piano lessons, Sunday School lessons, planted seed boxes and directed the gardener who raised most of our food.  She taught me from kindergarten into the middle of my second year of high school -- piano, blood typing, Latin.  In free time, she learned astronomy and read about mountain climbing.  She could name every peak when we flew over the Alps. She knew the name of every constellation and star we could see from our front porch in Ogbomosho, and when she explained the light-years she talked about the music she would hear up there in Heaven.

In the 40s and 50s, even missionaries could afford household help, so she taught someone to read and to cook. She taught herself to make bread on a wood stove so she could teach him. We had formal meals, cloth napkins, a steward in brass buttons.  The floors gleamed.  She loved color, flowers.  Our house was always prettier, more ordered than almost any other house we saw. 

For a woman who had given more than fifty years to healing, it was great injustice for her to be trapped by a deteriorating mind, blinded in one eye by a careless eye surgeon, unable to walk on legs that had cycled for 40 years, danced, run up and down stairs, taken brisk daily walks. A women who wept over the beauty of light barely able to distinguish between light and dark, though sometimes she could catch an intense red.  A woman disciplined about the emotions she showed, determined we would not learn fear, she was ravaged by sundowner syndrome.  An obstetrician, she nearly bled to death in childbirth because there was no obstetrician available when she gave birth in Nigeria to my brother. A surgeon, she underwent at least 7 major operations herself, and knew all about the pain, the submission, the fear.  

There is one last operation, today, when her brain is removed and sent in ice to a researcher who is studying brain changes in dementia.

We go to what we love. My mother dances today with the Lord of the Dance to the music of the spheres.  My mother is become light.  


  1. I am so sorry for your loss but agree with you that your dear mother was released from a prison and is now free in the heavens.

    In death, life is changed, not ended (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the burial service)


  2. Diana and family, I just heard about your mother's death, and I have such sympathy. She and my mother were such good friends and colleagues all those years in Nigeria, and I have fond memories of Aunt Martha, since you and your family lived just down the spider-lily path from our old house in Ogbomosho. I know my mother, who died in 2000, held her in high regard.
    All my best to you and your families. --
    Carolyn Pool

  3. Diana & Peter: we are praying for you and your families. Your mother was such a special Southern lady. I was one of the privileged MKs to take piano lessons from "Aunt" Martha. Music just flowed from her soul and fingers. To this day when I sit at the piano, I am reminded of what Aunt Martha taught me about sitting erect and no jewelry that might detract from the piano music. God bless you! Anne Crowder Lucas

  4. Diana, your beautiful tribute moved me to tears. I have many memories of your mother as she worked in Ogbomosho with my father, but reading what you wrote has added dimensions that I did not know about her. Thank you. I do not know how our parents were able to accomplish so much, against such odds, and complain so little about constantly giving of themselves.

    To you and Peter both, I know that you rejoice for your mother's release, but also will really feel her absence. Perhaps your grief will be for the indignities of her deteriorating condition. I hope that you will be able to keep in your heart not her last few years of terrible health, but the vibrant young woman in the picture above. I have heard that we never get over losing our parents--but in time we do get used to it. I am still working on that.

    Much love,
    Martha Low Bishop

  5. Diana - Beautiful. Your mother was a great lady, a great doctor, and a great person. You and Peter will miss her, but, many who owe their life to her will celebrate her.


  6. Diana and Peter-
    How blessed we all are to have been surrounded by such stalwarts of the faith as Dr Martha Gilliland! How many souls will kiss her and thank her for introducing them to their first breath of natural air, and/or their first breath of the Holy Spirit of God! I know that my siblings and I will join that long line in front of her mansion in Glory.
    May the Comforter be your ever-present help as you grieve your loss and celebrate her gain.
    Mark Dunaway

  7. Dear Diana and Peter,
    I was fortunate to spend 8 weeks living and working with your Mother in Nigeria in the late 70's.
    I was an eager impressionable medical student. She was the skillful and kind physician/surgeon. I remember drummers and dancing at the Frances Jones House. I also remember being outside at night and her pointing out various stars and constellations.She took me to market and into the Bush. She helped me deliver my first baby. I learned how to do a lot with very little. She taught me so much professionally and personally.I too am sorry she had to suffer for so long but know she was lovingly cared for. My thoughts are with you all .
    I celebrate the life and legacy of your remarkable Mother.
    Mary Marvin Johnson, M.D.

  8. Dear Diana and Peter,
    I spent nearly 2 months at Ogbomosho, before and after the delivery by your mother of my daughter. My mother was there, too, all the way from India and my family all marvelled at Martha's skill and humanity.
    Martha knew I would have a difficult time giving birth so I was asked to come early, to save myself the bumpy journey from Ibadan. My mother and I (and my husband) were treated so hospitably, with true Southern grace. The orderly house, the sweet rolls at breakfast, the mandatory mile walk round the circular drive fringed with crotons, the hymn singing (the cook accompanying on the harmonium).
    I will never forget Martha's "pep" talk just when I was leaving with my beautiful baby. In her gentle, ladylike Southern drawl (nearly 39 years laterI can hear her still) she asked,
    "Now how do you intend to bring up your child? Will you teach her about God?"
    In fact I was an agnostic at the time but I was deeply touched that Dr Martha cared so much about my precious baby.

    Peter and I met up a few years later in Oxford- at St Aldate's Church. I am grieved that such a beautiful,vibrant and gifted person had to suffer in her later years. Dr Martha was a wonderful example of a true Christian whom I was so very privileged to know.
    God bless you,Diana Peter and Patsy and all your family in your mourning.
    Nanu Mitchell

  9. Thank you for this incredible verbal picture of your Mom - possibly one reason she so loved Nigeria was the fact that as a Baptist butterfly she was able to praise God with her feet in Africa! Dr. Martha blessed people around the world and I'm glad that my life was also touched by her, Bert Yates, IMB/Nairobi, Kenya

  10. Dear Dianna,
    What a wonderful woman! What a blessing that you had such a great Mom! A life well lived, and now soaring in joy. May her joy infuse your sorrow.
    Love, - Ann McChesney-Young

  11. Dianna, I serve as a Highway Patrol Chaplain with Peter. He shared your blog entry with me. Thank you for writing about your mother. I can see that she was a tireless servant of the Lord Jesus Christ and clearly a wonderful, incredible, remarkable woman. Her story is an inspiration to me. May God pour out His comfort on you and your family today.

  12. Diana - That is a lovely tribute to a lovely lady and admired physician. I think you had "outgrown" Ogbomosho when I arrived in Sept.1958. After about 3 mos.,I moved on to Shaki for about six mo., back to Ogbomosho a few more months, and finally to Joinkrama until June 1966. So, my associations with Martha were brief, but impressive. I pray God's blessings for all the family in these days of remembrance, Joanna Maiden Owens, M.D.,MPH

  13. Diana, your tribute is beautiful. The way your mother lived her life reminds me of a Native American proverb--"When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Life your life so that when you die, the world will cry and you will rejoice."

  14. Beautifully expressed. Your mother--and father--would be pleased.

  15. Diana, what a wonderful tribute to your mother! Everyone will miss her, but I know that the Lord has welcomed her into glory.

    God bless,
    Paul Tate

  16. I just saw this, Diana -- thank you for sharing! I loved the times we got to visit with Aunt Martha. She was such a happy person, and a delight to be around.

  17. I am really sorry you lost you lost the company of your mother. I knew your mother from a Sunday School class at St. Paul United Methodist Church back in the early 80's. I was so naiive in my faith and Dr. David Stewart was extremely kind toward my husband and children and me. He even invited us to his and your mother's home for a lovely meal after church one time.
    I didn't last long in that Sunday School class because I brought a few materials from the new pro life office newly opened in downtown Louisville. I had noo idea your mother worked at Planned Parenthood nor the number of women who had aborted their babies in that class at church. It was a rude awakening to what has been a very lonely road of following Jesus Christ and Him alone.

  18. My mother strongly believed that the question of abortion, always sad, was purely between a woman and her doctor. I have worked as an abortion counselor, and until you have been there, you can have no idea of the grief and pain with which the women involved have to deal. It is not a simple issue of following Jesus. There are many roads.

    If you believe Planned Parenthood is a mechanism for abortion, you have bought into the great conservative lie. I used PP for 20 years for Gyn assistance & mammograms, because I could not afford medical insurance. It provides birth control and many kinds of assistance to women, far beyond abortion.

    Following Jesus means facing the truth on occasion. Jesus offers forgiveness, which is not something I see from many who claim to follow him.

  19. I want to say, too, that I am sorry you have found following Jesus so lonely. At such a time, it is worth taking a few steps to one side and looking at the path. It is easy to get tangled in an interpretation. I have a dear friend who is sure she knows what following Jesus means, but all her rules and definitions have separated her from her children and she is desperately lonely and sad. She is still wrapped in the binders put on by her very rigid missionary parents. At the same time, she thinks I know about following Jesus, and we are probably about 160 degrees apart.


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