University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Medical Missionaries

Thinking back, it seems to me that missionaries of my father’s generation had a particularly clear view of the world. They saw it in the raw, in black and white, and full of all the social dilemmas and physical disasters among peoples to whom they ministered and with whom they dwelt so long and intimately. They could not help observe at close hand the local tyranny and corruption that our government often embraces or ignores in those countries.

William Hughlett, Methodist medical missionary to the Congo, was an example of that generation who came often to our home and impressed me deeply. Recognizing the social origins of Western diseases, he observed their absence under lifestyles of the natives compared to those of American and European colonials. For example, he told me on a visit to Tulane when I was a medical student that he had seen not a single case among natives, during more than 20 years’ missionary practice in Africa, of appendicitis, tonsillitis, or heart attack. It was he who first awakened my interest in medical missions, but more crucially, he surely helped lead me to the idea that the causes of mass diseases in industrial society are importantly due to mass behaviors and exposures, and often to social oppression, poverty, and chaos.

Walter Judd, too, was a missionary physician with clear vision, who saw first-hand the wretched Chinese victims of Japanese aggression in the Sino-Japanese war. Judd was later a congressman who was gerrymandered out of his Twin Cities congressional district before his death, having served his Minneapolis constituency for many years. He was one of those uncommon figures in Congress with “sound principles” and “Christian values,” but he was also identified with the infamous China Lobby of General and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Dr. Judd was a family practitioner and general surgeon for many years before becoming a medical missionary and then congressman. I must have met him in 1940, because I remember that he predicted the U.S. war with Japan and sounded the alarm well before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. According to his obituary in the Minneapolis Tribune, missionary Judd broadcast his message of warning in a grand tour around this country during his home leave in 1940-41, making some 1,400 talks that year. My father opened his church in Gainesville, Florida, to Judd’s dramatic message, which went much like this, as I recalled it in my high school diary:

“You people are responding to our government’s call for scrap iron. You may not know that the government is selling it to the Japanese. As a missionary surgeon, I am digging that scrap iron out of the flesh of the Chinese people. It is madness!  The Japanese are beating our  plowshares into their  swords; they are decimating China in their so-called Holy War on the Asian continent. The Japanese military has run wild; the gentle Emperor and his people are their captives. I believe that this madness will soon be turned against us. I beg you, stop the scrap iron shipments!  Stop the slaughter!  Mobilize against the Japanese invaders!”

Judd was angry — and prescient.

Garfield Evans, Methodist missionary to Cuba and a close friend of my parents, introduced me to the brutality of Batista Cuba in the summer of 1949, which I spent with him in Oriente Province. Rather than challenge me to a missionary career, my exposure through him to this lawless, superstitious, and cynical culture set me running in another direction. In Cuba, I developed a strong conviction that oppressed peoples needed freedom, an education, better nutrition and sanitation, and jobs. Under such improved conditions, I suspected, most of their common diseases would soon disappear. I came to believe that medical care by paternalistic, proselytizing missionaries offered a doubly false promise — of health and of salvation. 

Denis Burkitt was not an ordained minister but served devotedly for years as English government physician in a mission to the people of Uganda and Kenya. He not only identified and described a complex disease that was given his name, Burkitt’s lymphoma, but he independently developed an evolutionary theory of the origin of mass modern diseases — in maladaptations due to discordance between our hunter-gatherer human legacy and our modern affluent lifestyles.

Thus, several of that generation of missionaries touched my life: Walter Judd, surely, with his predictions of war and his sharp definition of tyranny; Henry Barnett, a gentle English professor at Florida Southern College, whom I haven’t mentioned here, with his subtle sensitivity and exquisite Japanese brush drawings that spoke of Christian love transcendent; William Hughlett and Denis Burkitt, who opened my eyes to the major cultural and socioeconomic influences on mass health, and Garfield Evans, who gave me the hands-on experience that edged me toward epidemiology and public health rather than medical practice or missions.

I learned much from each of these superior men and from their forbearing partners. I am grateful to them for the insights they provided and for the attitudes about disease and health and ecology that they imparted — usually without knowing they did so.

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