A Legacy of Women’s Healthcare in China

(CN 379, Folder 4-1)

Across the history of global missions, evangelistic work has often been closely tied with practical or humanitarian outreach, especially care for the sick and hurting. The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Archives holds the records of many such missionary doctors, nurses, and mission hospitals. One of the oldest mission hospitals represented in our collections is the Margaret Williamson Hospital, opened in 1885 in Shanghai, China under the Woman’s Union Missionary Society of America for Heathen Lands (commonly referred to as Woman’s Union Missionary Society or WUMS).

WUMS was founded by Sarah T. Doremus in November 1860. Concerned for the spiritual welfare of women in Asia, where traditions and social structures made outreach by male missionaries difficult, Doremus envisioned a mission composed of single women who could fill this gap and address the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of unreached women and children. Over the first ten years of the Society, missionaries were sent to Myanmar (1862), India (1863), China (1869), and Japan (1871). The initial missions were predominately focused on education, but many members of the society were eager to expand into medical missions. This included Margaret Williamson, who, in 1882, pledged $5,000 towards the founding of a woman’s hospital in China.

Elizabeth Reifsnyder, (Photo File: WUMS-Individuals)

When Dr. Elizabeth Reifsnyder applied to join the Society in 1883, she became WUMS’ first medical missionary. Only a few months out of her graduate program at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, some members of the mission board voiced concerns about her youth. She is popularly reported to have replied, “Time will remedy that!”.

After a few months’ preparation, Dr. Reifsnyder sailed for Shanghai, China and in 1884 opened a temporary dispensary in a home donated by a local Chinese Christian, Mrs. Huang Fan-chi. A year later, the newly constructed Margaret Williamson Hospital opened with a staff of five, including Dr. Reifsnyder, another WUMS’ missionary E. M. McKechnie and three Chinese assistants. Located in the international concession (present day Huangpu District), but adjacent to the “native city,” the hospital served only women and children, the first medical mission to focus exclusively on women’s health in Shanghai. To many in the local community, it soon became known as Ximen Women and Children’s Hospital, named for its position near the West Gate.

The first staff, 1885. (CN 379, Folder 4-1)

In her 1887 report to the WUMS’ home board, Dr. Reifsnyder proudly described the new mission: “The hospital occupies a well-raised and healthful site about a quarter of mile outside the West Gate of the City, is a substantial brick edifice of two stories, with crowded accommodation for 20 patients, a number of the beds having been provided by charitable ladies in America.” (Report 1887, Folder 4-1).

Over the first two years of the hospital, 230 inpatients were treated, along with more than 20,000 outpatients (including the work of the dispensary). In 1910, the Steven’s Maternity Wing was added to the hospital, the first of its kind in China. Ten years later, a Shanghai School of Nursing was established, shortly joined by a Woman’s Christian Medical College in 1924. By its 50th anniversary in 1925, the hospital reported serving 2,968 inpatients and 28,222 outpatients.

Margaret Williamson Hospital, ca. 1910. (Photo File: Medical Care – China)

The evangelistic work of the hospital included daily chapel and weekly Bible classes, organized mainly for the staff but open to patients as well. Due in part to the difficulties of local dialects, much of the direct evangelistic work of the hospital became the purview of local Chinese Christian women, popularly called “Bible women.” One of the first of these women was Mrs. Day, the mother of a chaplain for nearby St. John’s College. For more than forty years, Mrs. Day spent hours on the hospital wards, sitting with patients, sharing the gospel, and reading Bible passages.

Mrs. Day (CN 379, 4-1)

In 1927, evangelism and medicine left the hospital walls and went out into the community through a new public health program for follow-up care. The program was run by the nursing staff and included not only Shanghai, but the surrounding communities of Loonghwa, Kiangwan, and Pootung. In another effort to reach out to patients for long-term care and health education, the public health department ran a free weekly “Well Baby Clinic” for infant check-ups and childcare support.

Along with new methods for evangelistic outreach, the records of the Margaret Williamson hospital also document the many advances in medical science during the 19th and 20th centuries – from the evolution of aseptic methods under Pasteur’s germ theory to the development of medical specialties like gynecology, ophthalmology, and pediatrics. The gallery below gives a glimpse into the life of the busy hospital in the 1930s, with a pathology lab, pharmacy, and x-ray.

When the Japanese army occupied the city during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, doctors and patients were forced to evacuate the hospital at West Gate. After the shelling stopped, significant damage to the building and new restrictions on districts associated with the Allied powers prohibited a quick return to the hospital. However, a temporary home was found in a former orthopedic hospital in the French concession and work quickly resumed.

Clinical Staff, 1939. Dr. Kwong, Dr. Grace Martin, Gua Wang, and Dr. Lawney (back row), Dr. Wong (front row). (Photo File: Medical Care – China).

After America declared war on Japan in 1941, the American doctors and staff had to leave the hospital, but operations continued under Dr. T. N. Kwong and the Chinese doctors, nurses, and staff. Correspondence between WUMS missionaries, the home board, and their Chinese colleagues gives glimpses of the challenges and triumphs of these war years, as in the 1945 letter from Dr. Kwong below.

The end of the war proved to be a brief lull in a decade of change. Only a year after re-opening the hospital buildings at West Gate in 1947, the WUMS missionaries and other American staff were again directed to evacuate, this time in advance of the People’s Liberation Army under the Chinese Communist Party. Yet, as before, the work of the hospital continued. Under Dr. Kwong, and later Dr. Shuzhen Wang, the hospital became one of the premier centers for the care of women and children in China and still operates today as the Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital of Fudan University.

You can explore more reports, photographs, and correspondence documenting the work of the Margaret Williamson Hospital, as well as other WUMS’ hospitals in India and Pakistan through CN 379: Records of the Woman’s Union Missionary Society.

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