Modern Medical Missionary

  • Religion
  • 1834

Peter Parker grew up in a family of poor but pious Massachusetts farmers, felt a religious calling as a teenager, earned both theology and medical degrees from Yale, then was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He volunteered to become an overseas missionary supported by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (see 1810 item in this section), and arrived in China in 1834.

Parker opened a hospital in Canton, where he pioneered medical mission work. He was tender and selfless, and a skilled surgeon and ophthalmologist, and as patients began to flock to him, he removed cataracts and cured other eye diseases, then excised tumors, treated infections, and operated on internal organs. His ability to relieve suffering soon made him spectacularly popular and in demand among the Chinese, and he treated 2,000 people in his first year.

Local medicine was then in a crude state—Parker described seeing air blown into the rectum of a drowned child in an attempt at resuscitation, and patients with infected fingers inserting them into a live frog as a cure. Parker quickly took Chinese students under his wing to train them in Western medical techniques and expand his hospital’s services. This launched medical education in the country.

Over two decades Parker treated more than 52,000 patients. He introduced anesthesia to China, pioneered many surgical techniques, and in 1838 formed a Medical Missionary Society (the first medical society in the world) to encourage and support other religious workers bringing health care to Asian trading ports. In its first 50 years, Society members treated one million sick people, trained numerous local residents as doctors and nurses, translated important books, and otherwise brought modern medicine to the world’s most populous region.

Peter Parker not only relieved human suffering, but dissolved much Chinese prejudice against Christians. Indeed, he personally came to be revered, opening doors for many other Westerners. And the model he established for combining relief of physical suffering with Christian witness came to be a central strand of missions work.