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A Saint Who Pulled No Punches: The Story of Blanche Biggs

[From Meredith Goehring’s Afterword for The Major and the Missionary, available in the Rabbit Room Store.]



Born on the 20th of December, 1909, in North East Tasmania, Blanche Biggs was the youngest child in a family of ten. In her last years at secondary school, she decided that she wanted to study medicine. From pocket money and various odd jobs, she saved one shilling a week until she had enough to enter nursing school.


While a student, she contracted tuberculosis. In those days, tuberculosis was often a death sentence. She spent six months in a sanatorium and following that, six years being cared for by her parents. During those years, she grew very close to her mother. They both prayed, and they believed that God heard their prayers. After long years of convalescence, Blanche was pronounced completely cured, and she went on to finish her medical degree at Melbourne University.


Soon after, while attending an Anglican church service at St. Peter’s Eastern Hill in Melbourne, she heard a visiting preacher appeal for medical missionaries willing to go to Papua New Guinea. Blanche believed that God was telling her why He had answered her prayers for healing. Blanche took several extra courses in tropical medicine and received training as a midwife. Then, on the 7th of September, 1948, she was appointed by the Australian Board of Missions to the mission field.


Blanche spent the next 25 years serving in Papua New Guinea. She specialized in tuberculosis cases and worked among those with leprosy. But, as is often the case in mission hospitals, Blanche was also called upon to provide whatever medical care might be needed: delivering babies, tending to burns, and performing surgeries. In one of her early newsletters from the mission field, she describes an encounter with one patient as follows:


Since I wrote last, I have done a fair amount of traveling, finally collected all my straggling bits of luggage and unpacked; and can fairly say that I have settled in. There have been odds and ends of surgery, none of it major; the most alarming thing I have done so far has been to repair a man’s arm after a crocodile had finished with it. Both the patient and I, I think, offered up thanks that it was a small crocodile. In spite of the filth that crocodiles are credited with carrying in their teeth, the wound healed by first intention. (Newsletter 2)



This crocodile encounter occurred during her first year of service in Papua; her tone expresses a robust sense of adventure and curiosity that would sustain her through the next 24 years. She continues, “There are plenty of most interesting medical problems here, and one often longs for up-to-date laboratory facilities; however, one must go ‘by guess and by God’ and leave it at that” (Newsletter 2). Though she was often overwhelmed by the amount of work she faced, she seemed undaunted by the challenges of the jungle.


Blanche did it all; she hosted Bishops and managed Church conferences and inoculated children against polio. Throughout her time on the mission field, she held two full- time jobs: as a hospital administrator and as a doctor who served as a midwife, primary care physician, and surgeon. In 1950, a year and a half into her tenure in Papua, she was presented with a little girl whose lips had been fused together by a tropical infection. Known colloquially as “yaws,” this infection causes areas of the skin to swell and burst, forming lesions. Blanche writes that the girl was kept home from school and could only whisper. Blanche restructured the girl’s lips in surgery and was “rewarded by a funny little smile” the first day she dressed the girl’s wounds (Newsletter 10).

Tuberculosis was (and still is) one of the most prominent killers in Papua New Guinea; it was one of Blanche’s fiercest challenges. She and her fellow missionaries were able to cure most of the cases brought to them. For example, she treated one woman with hardly any lung function. She had wasted to a mere skeleton. However, after receiving care in the hospital, the woman’s appetite returned, and she was strong enough to participate in the mission’s Christmas festivities (Newsletter 65). Blanche cared for everyone she could.


During her time in Papua, Blanche was awarded the Order of the British Empire. John Biggs notes, “Her OBE was the only instance where she might have been accused of the sin of pride.” In trying to sum up his aunt’s life and contributions, he writes, “She firmly believed that God had guided her life, and that intercession by prayer worked.” He concludes, “Her oldest sister, Lil, was a saintly saint, her other sister, Win, a worldly saint [...], Blanche, the youngest of the three surviving sisters, was a feisty saint; a saint who pulled no punches.”


Blanche Biggs and C.S. Lewis’ older brother, Warren Lewis, exchanged letters for years. In October of 1968, Blanche wrote the very first of [her] letters to Warren. In it, she ponders the merits of burning her extensive memorabilia of documents, photographs, and journals, collected over a lifetime. Then she hesitates: “Some of my letters and papers might be useful in the future, even after my death, not because of their merit in themselves; but I have been a missionary doctor living in this same area for 20 years, and I have seen this Territory developing right under my nose, from primitive life to a pseudo-civilized one” (Letter 1). Blanche was wise to consider that her letters and papers might be useful one day. They offer a genuine portrait of life as a missionary in Papua New Guinea in the mid-1900s, articulated with candid authenticity.

Blanche wrote for the joy of self-expression and connection with her reader. It is a gift to us, the audience Blanche would never have imagined, that one of those favored readers was Warren Lewis. It was certainly a treasure to him. Warren’s connection with a missionary doctor across the seas enriches our understanding not just of the elusive Major, but also of the Lewis brothers and the Inklings.


Blanche and Warren’s story entrusts us with the same charge as the greatest tales: to live sacrificially for the sake of the good we see, both in the world and in one another. Blanche’s story in particular is engaging and inspiring in its own right, and more: it is a reminder of generations of unsung heroes—missionaries and others—whose own stories deserve to be told.


Blanche’s commitment to Christ steered her life. Just as it guided her through her years of service in Papua, her faith guided her during her last years. Even in retirement, when she had settled in Brisbane, she sought opportunities to serve: “I have been doing a refresher course in medical work, and hope to do a bit of medical work; perhaps among the aboriginals who are pretty plentiful in this city, and need medical care” (Letter 85). She emphasized an open attitude to people no matter their abilities or background, writing that the hospital tried to create a spirit “of service and friendship to all, regard- less of barriers” (Newsletter 8). She carried this conviction to the end of her life, remaining a robust and servant-hearted woman all her days.


As she approached her 90th birthday, her good health faded. She suffered multiple health crises in her last decade, “each of which,” as her nephew says, “she hoped would deliver her to her Maker, who she yearned to meet face to face.” Blanche herself says little about this yearning, but her nephew John Biggs believes that her point of view was much the same as that of her grandmother Harriet Burville:


It may be that I am nearly home... but I am not a bit afraid. My precious Jesus, who has never left nor forsaken me in all the years since I gave myself to Him, has taken away all fear of death... my whole trust is in the finished work of my Saviour, who is always my constant, ever-present Friend, close enough to be touched [...] I have not gone home yet, but waiting, trusting, and longing to go, and yet quite willing to stay here as long as my loving Father pleases. ... His will be done.


Blanche Biggs died on May 7, 2008. Her ashes are scattered in the rose garden of the Kenmore Parish Church (Queensland), where she was an active member. The papers, letters, and photographs that she had collected over the years were not destroyed: she donated her correspondence with Warren Lewis to The Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, and the rest of her accumulated papers, diaries, and photographs to the special collection at the Fryer Library, the University of Queensland.



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