China has been one of the largest areas of Christian growth in the last century. Hudson Taylor, who founded the China Inland Mission in 1875, is perhaps the most famous missionary to work in this region, and the work of his organisation resulted in countless Chinese coming to know Christ. However, the way was paved for Taylor's work by earlier missionaries such as Peter Parker, who is recognised as the first Protestant medical missionary to China.
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1804, Parker was the son of a devout Christian farming family. He attended Yale University, graduating with a BA in 1831, and remained there to study theology and medicine, earning his MD in 1834. In January of the same year, he was also ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in Philadelphia.
One month later, in February 1834, Parker sailed for the Canton region in southern China, now known as the province of Guangzhou. Parker specialised in treating eye diseases, particularly cataracts, and one year after his arrival he opened the Ophthalmic Hospital at Canton, as it was known in English. He also performed general surgical operations and the hospital soon started to cater for patients with other maladies. Parker and his small staff handled thousands of cases each year, treating more than 50,000 patients by the 1850s. He is also credited with introducing Western anaesthesia into China in the form of sulphuric ether.
Parker's surgical practice clearly tapped into a huge unmet need. In a series of talks to the Boston Medical Association in April 1841 he described the huge lack of medical and surgical knowledge in China. He had observed a man with his finger inserted into a live frog as a cure for a whitlow on the fingernail, and watched air being blown into the rectum of a drowned child in an attempt at resuscitation.
Leading the way
In the early phase of medical missionary work, some missionaries studied medicine before going into the field to equip themselves better for living life in a remote area. For example, after earning his degree in theology, David Livingtone, the Scottish missionary and explorer of the Victorian era, studied medicine as part of his mission training. Similarly, Hudson Taylor, who was also a doctor, saw medical missions in similar terms. However, Parker strongly believed that his clinical work could be the 'handmaid of religious truth'. Medicine and preaching were equally important to him and, although he held regular religious services for his patients, his hospital in Canton offered free treatment for both rich and poor. Through this he fostered tremendous goodwill amongst the local community.
The Ophthalmic Hospital became the model for other medical missions around the world and, along with his colleague Dr T Colledge, Parker founded the Medical Missionary Society of Canton in 1838. The aim of the organisation was to co-ordinate the efforts of all the western hospitals springing up in the trading ports of Asia, including the small eye hospital opened by Colledge, who was a Christian working for the East India Company. By increasing the availability of free medical care for the poorest in society, Parker hoped to 'open China for the gospel with the lancet'.
Peter Parker also stimulated colleagues in Britain, Scotland, and the United States to become supportive of medical mission work, and he was instrumental in founding the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society. At the same time, Parker and Colledge also established the first modern medical education programme in China.
Parker travelled extensively in China but was forced to flee the country temporarily in 1840 to escape the hostilities of the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China. During this time he returned to the United States to raise funds for his work. He spoke to many religious societies, a few medical bodies, and even the United States Congress, where he preached to members of the House and Senate and lobbied legislators on the need for diplomatic relations with China.
Consequently, shortly after his return to China in 1842, he became secretary to the United States embassy and occasionally acted as charge d'affaires in the absence of the United States minister. In 1855 he was appointed commissioner at the request of the US government, a position he held until 1857, when he finally returned to the US.
Because of the relative absence of modern surgical techniques in China, Parker found himself operating on a number of patients afflicted with tumours that had been growing for as many as 30 years, resulting in major deformities. He commissioned Lam Qua, a Chinese artist, to paint the most significant cases pre-operatively. In the absence of contemporary techniques such as medical photography, they provided state of the art visual aids and, together with Parker's notes recorded in his personal journals, the portraits provide an important insight into the extent of surgical pathology in the mid-1800s, as well as the relative brutality of surgical techniques at the time. Lam Qua, who became highly regarded for his skills as a portrait painter, had studied with George Chinnery, the first English painter to settle in China, and was the first Chinese portrait painter to be exhibited in the West.
Peter Parker died in the United States in 1888, at the age of 83. On his death, Parker left the portrait collection to the Pathology Department of the Yale Medical School. They were later given to the Yale University Library where they are still held by the Peter Parker Collection at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.
As well as his important role in the fostering of diplomatic relations between the US and China, he played a crucial role in the development of western surgical techniques in the country, as well as making a major contribution to medical art. His dedication to the people of China, and innovative approach to using medicine as a tool for the gospel, played a crucial role in developing contemporary modern mission, as well as helping to lay the foundations for the gospel work that has gone in China in recent years.
/library- the Peter Parker collection online /historical /parker.html
- Gulick E. Peter Parker and the Opening of China. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1973