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An Epidemic in Lu Chow Fu – A glimpse of mission work in 1900’s China

Present day malaria map, Hefei is just west of Nanjing

I’ve been working on transcribing the diary of a missionary doctor who lived in Hefei (then called Lu Chow Fu) around the turn of the century. This passage, written by the doctor’s wife, struck me as particularly interesting for several reasons. Firstly, by the sheer number of people the doctor and his two assistants were able to treat in a year, and secondly by the fact that malaria had been such a major concern in central China. Last year there were only 24 deaths from the disease, and it has been eradicated in Hefei, this is a noteworthy achievement that is rarely mentioned. According to Wikipedia, the population of Hefei in 1930 was ~30,000. The following entry gives us an interesting glimpse of both the period, and the work done by missionaries in China.

While his surgical work alone was enough for one man with his surroundings, it constituted a very small part of his work. For every operation there were hundreds he treated medically. All sorts of diseases came to him, but malaria was the most common. Ordinarily this trouble was very easy to treat for it usually yielded to a few doses of quinine and did not give cause for much uneasiness.

One year (1907), though, while we were still in the mountains, word came to us that a dreadful malady had seized the people of Lu Chow Fu. Deaths were occurring on every hand. The fields were left unreaped because the well ones were all occupied in caring for the sick. Coffins could not be made fast enough to carry out the dead.

The Doctor hastened us all down that he might be there to see what he could do. He studied the trouble with microscope and found it to be a most virulent type of malaria. He went to the homes where he was called. Often he found the patient unconscious and had been for several days. Everything would be in readiness for the burial. The funeral clothes even already put on. Doctor would inject quinine hypodermically and leave. The next day he would call to see the patient and find him conscious and able to sit up. Though he might not be asked to come again by the friends, he went again and again of his own accord, without charging for his visit. So interested was he that he wanted to see his cases clear through until they were entirely recovered.

These words quoted from a written report by him show us his great concern, “Some of the cases were very sad, many having been starved by the native doctors till, when the disease ceased of itself, or was arrested by treatment, they were too weak to assimilate food and recuperate. One Chinese doctor of good reputation, who was the only support a large family died in this way. He had tasted no food for forty days.”

Well do I remember that busy year. Night and day, he was called out to save the dying. He became so tired, I felt quite alarmed. I expressed my fears to him. He said to me, “don’t worry, it will not always be this way. I will get a chance to rest after awhile.” So tired and so much in need of rest was he, that I would get up and answer the call. If it was an opium suicide (overdose), I would not awaken him, but ask the assistant to attend to the case. He had instructed the assistant to call him always, no matter what the case might be. They were trained however, to save opium cases and it was not necessary for himself to go. One night the assistant came to inform him of such a case, Doctor gave the usual orders and returned to his bed. The next morning the fee was handed to him. He was surprised and asked what it meant. He was told it was for the case in the night. He had no recollection of such a case, and would not believe it until I verified the statement. He had been so tired he had not realized he had arisen and given the orders.

The visits he made this year numbered between eleven and twelve hundred with thirty-three thousand treatments having been administered at the clinic held daily except on Sunday. Some days there were three hundred fifty.  To be sure he could not see all of these himself. He had two trained assistants who saw them as he would, and they were rushed almost to death. They put their shoulders bravely to the wheel and bore their share of the burden willingly. It was these two men who took care of the hospital work the year we went to America on furlough. They ran a large clinic and collected a creditable sum of money. The sick were cared for, which was a source of satisfaction to us while we were absent.


2 Comments

  1. My grandfather was a missionary based out of St Pauls in Hongkong 1930-32. He was supposed to, and deeply wanted to, stay longer but repeated does of malaria forced him back home to NZ. The final one the docs said leave or die. Given that my mother was only a few months old (yep she was born in HK) that left him little choice but to pack up and leave. At that time the worst area in HK was Happy Valley and visiting the poor was more hazardous to ones health there than visiting the poor in Canton, which he also did on regular basis.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for sharing. Do you know more about the work he was doing then?
      Many missionaries also faced serious illnesses in the field. One of the better known incidents involved Aimee Semple McPherson, who later founded the 4 square church. After months of travel, her husband died from Malaria within a week of arriving in China.

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