Birthing Modern Medicine in China

  • Overseas
  • 1914

In 1863, John Rockefeller introduced kerosene to China as part of the expansion of his thriving oil business. To lend a practical boost to its romantic marketing slogan “oil for the lamps of China,” Standard Oil donated more than 8 million kerosene lights to residents of China, then built a commercial and cultural relationship that formed a foundation for Sino-American relations into the next century. In addition to weaving strong business connections, Rockefeller became a major philanthropic donor in China.

Rockefeller’s gifts to the Chinese for education and medical care were unprecedented. After an expert commission reported that China’s need for medical modernization was “great beyond any anticipation,” the Rockefeller Foundation established its China Medical Commission in 1914. The first task was to visit hospitals throughout the country and study the health of the nation’s population and the quality of medical practice. Then the commission set out to help make improvements, at a time when China had the highest mortality rate in the world.

One recommendation was to build up a potent medical school in China’s capital. The Rockefeller Foundation assumed all financial responsibility for the Peking Union Medical College, which had been created in 1906 by six Christian missionary societies. Steady effort transformed the college into an advanced institution, subsequently known as “the cradle of modern medicine in China.” One journalist described PUMC after Rockefeller’s beneficence as “an airplane college in a wheelbarrow country.”

In 1928, Rockefeller provided an endowment and set up a freestanding China Medical Board to continue this work as an independent American foundation. With the arrival of the communist government, the board withdrew from China and the Peking medical school in 1950. In 1980, the CMB was invited to return to China, where it has expanded its support of medical education and research to more than a dozen universities.