Peter Parker probably saved more eyesight than souls as a doctor-missionary to China during the height of the old China Trade. He eased the suffering of so many people he was ‘looked up to by the Chinese as little short of a deity,’ according to an American trader.
He opened the first ophthalmic hospital in a merchant’s warehouse in Canton, China, in 1835. Two thousand Chinese suffering all kinds of maladies thronged the hospital in the first year. Parker was the first to practice Western medicine in China, training several Chinese students to be doctors and introducing anesthesia in the form of sulfuric ether. When hostilities broke out between the United States and China over trade, Parker acted as translator for U.S. Ambassador to China Caleb Cushing.
He was born in Framingham, Mass., on June 18, 1804, the son of farmers. He graduated from Yale College, then Yale Medical School, then obtained a degree in theology at Yale. At his ordination and appointment ceremony, Peter Parker laid out his task:
China ‘has mind, she has wealth, she has civilization, she has hundreds of millions of immortal souls! The work is great; our faith in God must be proportionate; our efforts also.’
He specialized in removing cataracts and tumors. He commissioned a Western-trained painter, Lam Qua, to paint portraits of people with large, unusual tumors. They are now in the Peter Parker Collection at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.
In 1840, Parker left China because of the First Opium War, which broke out between England and China. He returned in 1842 and re-established his hospital. Two years later he worked with Caleb Cushing in negotiating the Treaty of Wanghia.
His health failing, he returned to the United States in 1855. President Franklin Pierce sent him back to China in 1856 to renegotiate the treaty on more favorable terms, but he failed. His health suffered again, and he went back to the United States in 1857.
Peter Parker lived another two decades, until he died on Jan. 10, 1888, in Washington, D.C.
With thanks to When America First Met China by Eric Jay Doolin.