Old missionary to eastern Tibet
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
632Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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Pioneer in Tibet the life and perils of Dr Albert Shelton
Reviewed by A C McKay
The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL
Douglas A Wissing.
Pioneer in Tibet: the life and perils of Dr Albert Shelton.
New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2004, pp. xvii, 334, illus., $29.95 ( 1-4039-6328-2).
The American medical missionary, Dr Albert Shelton, was the David Livingstone of his day, renowned across America as a Christian pioneer in a "heathen land". After qualifying as a doctor in 1903, Shelton and his wife joined the Foreign Christian Missionary Society. They soon set out for the mission station at Batang, on the Sino-Tibetan frontier, from where they hoped to spread Christianity into Tibet. Apart from occasional furloughs they remained there for nearly twenty years, and if Dr Shelton had little success in converting the Tibetans, he made a considerable impact as a biomedical pioneer.
He was fortunate in this Buddhist realm that his first patient was an important Buddhist lama, who appreciated the anaesthetic qualities of cocaine when Shelton removed a needle from his hand. Shelton went on to treat many more wounded Chinese and Tibetans in this war-torn and bandit-infested region, although he found the local people were content with their own remedies for most medical conditions.
Probably Shelton's greatest achievement came in 1917, with the opening of a fifty-bed hospital at Batang, "a near-incomprehensible expression of Western technology ... a temple of Western medicine, the only medical facility for a region the size of California" (p. 146). The opening ceremony provided the first patient, when an old man fell off a balcony and broke both of his legs. This remarkable hospital was, incidentally, one of three opened in that year in the Tibetan cultural world. In the Sikkimese capital of Gangtok the biomedical Sir Thutob Namgyal Memorial hospital opened, while in Lhasa the Men-ze-khang hospital opened, offering medical treatment with the indigenous system. While these survive, however, the Batang hospital was abandoned in 1932.
Although skilled enough to make his own smallpox vaccine during an outbreak in 1918, Shelton actually emerges as something of a reluctant medical practitioner, preoccupied with wider political and organizational issues. But his "long absences and short clinic hours" (p. 284, n.79) were apparently typical of medical missionaries, who spent much of their time on language and religious work. In Shelton's case, however, even his religious knowledge may not have been particularly deep, for like many medical missionaries he had no theological training.
Like so many missionaries, Shelton's "all-consuming dream" (p. 174) was to reach the "Forbidden City", the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. In 1919, in recognition of his medical achievements, he received what he took to be an invitation from the Dalai Lama to visit Lhasa. After an interval in which he was kidnapped by bandits, an incident that made him a major celebrity in America, Shelton finally set out to test the invitation in February 1922. But he was soon turned back. Then on his return journey he was shot, apparently by bandits, and died soon after. As the Tibetan proverb has it; "A good man dies at the top of the pass with his boots on" (p. 229).
In addition to missionary society accounts, Shelton wrote an autobiography, and his wife and daughters have also published their memoirs of the period. Thus the need for this book might be questioned. But Wissing's work is well-researched and locates Shelton's life in its wider political and environmental setting. It provides a fair and balanced appraisal of a remarkable individual, and if it sometimes loses sight of its central character the diversions are always entertaining and informative. This is a wonderfully well written book and a joy to read. It draws no general conclusions on either the missionary endeavour or the introduction of biomedicine into this foreign environment, but it does provide valuable insights into both processes.
It may also lead readers to revise their image of missionaries. With few conversions to be made in this region, men like Shelton frequently became involved in very different activities, serving as guides and interpreters for other travellers, as spies for the European colonial authorities, and as traders in artefacts, or even horses and rifles! As the author points out, although "Christianity was central to their worldview, missionary volunteers were seldom religious zealots. Rather they were often enthusiastic young people who were attracted to an exciting life in a far-off land" (p. 25).
Wissing has given us an excellent account of one of those exciting lives.
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/FK20Ad01.html - another one