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Trailblazers of medical history

Published 10 Nov 2016

How EMMS Trailblazers have changed the course of medical history – and are still doing so today 

The history of EMMS International is knit closely with some extraordinary trailblazers – Christian medical pioneers whose courage and thirst for adventure overseas led to thousands of lives around the world being transformed through compassionate healthcare. 

Dr Wong Fun, a Chinese medical student sponsored by EMMS two centuries ago made history when he graduated from medicine at Edinburgh University in 1855 as the first Chinese student to ever graduate from a European University. After his graduation Dr Wong Fun travelled to Hong Kong and worked at the Huiai Hospital. From 1860 he began to carry out types of surgery never seen before in China, placing him at the forefront of medicine in Asia at the time. He is credited as educating a new generation of doctors in China, passing on his wealth of knowledge of Western medicine to them. Also known as Huang Kuan, his work is commemorated by a memorial plaque at Edinburgh University and a statue, gifted by his hometown Zhuhai City, at the Edinburgh Confucius Institute’s garden.

Another pioneer in the history of medicine was EMMS’ first ever sponsored student - Dr David H Paterson, who received his Diploma in Surgery in 1855. Dr Paterson’s family had helped set up the Free Church of Scotland in 1843, so he was a natural choice when they approached EMMS about sending a medical missionary to India. The medical dispensary he opened in Madras helped 5365 patients in its first year alone.

 Medical missionaries took huge risks living in places where they had no immunity to local diseases. Paterson himself was forced to return from India to the UK several times because of ill health. He eventually took up a post as Superintendent at the EMMS Training School in George Square, but after only a few months he fell ill again. Tragically, he died at the young age of 39.

 It's not just men who were EMMS trailblazers of their time - Dr Isabella (Ella) Ferrier Pringle was the first female graduate EMMS sponsored. Born in Edinburgh, in 1876, Ella Pringle was educated at what is now Mary Erskine’s School. After the death of her parents she trained as a typist and it was through typing up medical theses that her interest in medicine began. Pringle attended meetings held by EMMS and subsequently started her medical studies at the age of 28, supported by the Society.

Pringle was an exceptional student and won frequent prizes and merit awards. After qualifying, she was appointed by the United Free Church of Scotland to a mission in Manchuria where she devoted herself to training young Chinese women in midwifery. The tough conditions eventually became too much for her health and, in 1916, she made the long journey home. Working at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Sick Children’s Hospital, she went on to develop maternity and child welfare schemes and obtained her MD in 1921. In 1925 she was the first woman to pass the exams for Membership of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and was also the first woman to be elected to the Fellowship of the College in 1929.

The legacy of these EMMS pioneers continues today. Following in the footsteps of these trailblazers comes Nurse Manju - the first specialist in palliative care that Nepal has had. In the aftermath of the earthquake there, EMMS International is supporting Manju to bring pain relief and end-of-life care to poor communities. Building on the legacy of 175 years bringing health and hope to people in desperate need. 

Watch our recent lecture from Edinburgh University's New College, as part of the series on the Centre for the Study of World Christianity on 8 November 2016, featuring Dr. Liz Grant, Dr Beate Jakob from the German Medical Institute and the EMMS International CEO James Wells here.