East-meets-West spirit of health care in Shanghai

Qiao Zhengyue
Surviving hospital buildings look simple and modest. But they have withstood the test of time and witnessed a breathtaking history of Western medicine in Shanghai.
Qiao Zhengyue

Last month, the municipal government released a list of 1,649 medical professionals who had been sent by local hospitals to aid Hubei Province, heart of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic in China.

The courage and devotion shown by these doctors and nurses aroused my interest in medical work, especially as the virus swept its way around the world. Reading through the list, written in golden Chinese characters on red paper, I found that most hospitals which dispatched medical teams to Hubei have a long history tracing back to old Shanghai. With further research, I found the history of Western medicine in Shanghai started very soon after the city opened its port in 1843.

Founded in 1844 by British medical missionary William Lockhart, the first Western hospital in Shanghai still stands on its original 19th-century site and retains its old Chinese name, Renji Hospital.

East-meets-West spirit of health care in Shanghai
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

Renji Hospital, Shanghai’s first Western hospital founded in 1844, is still located in its 19th-century site.

According to medical historian Lu Ming’s thesis “A Brief History of Western Hospital in Modern Shanghai,” around 300 Western hospitals were founded in the metropolis from 1844 to 1949.

At the beginning missionaries opened most hospitals, but more public and private hospitals joined the Shanghai medical scene at the turn of the 20th century. A large proportion of these old Shanghai hospitals remained and developed into big modern places of health care, such as Renji Hospital, which has four branches today.

Most original buildings inside these history-rich hospitals have been demolished and rebuilt to suit modern-day developments. But I was surprised to find that some heritage buildings, in a variety of architectural styles, still survive today and are in good health.

East-meets-West spirit of health care in Shanghai
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

The ground floor of the Huadong Hospital which was designed by L.E. Hudec as the Country Hospital in 1926.

Compared with historical buildings for commercial use, like grand hotels or imposing banks, these surviving hospital buildings look simple and modest. But they have withstood the test of time and witnessed a breathtaking history of Western medicine in Shanghai.

A galaxy of devoted medical missionaries, excellent doctors, far-sighted socialists and philanthropic billionaires, foreign and Chinese, have contributed to the city’s medical development since 1844. Their remarkable work provided a solid medical services’ foundation that benefitted the city’s residents. Some of the hospitals created by them, such as Renji Hospital, Ruijin Hospital, Huashan Hospital, Zhongshan Hospital and Shanghai General Hospital, to name a few, all sent staff to Hubei Province to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Greatly touched by their work, I hastily changed a previous column plan, and decided to run a Shanghai hospital series.

In the following months, I will explore surviving heritage buildings, hidden inside modern hospitals sprinkled all around our city, and review the amazing history of Western medicine in Shanghai.

During the research and exploration, I was amazed that foreigners and Chinese people worked shoulder-to-shoulder in local hospitals more than a century ago. Moreover, there were Western hospitals founded to treat Chinese patients and hospitals founded by Chinese that employed foreign doctors. Western and Chinese medical researchers also cooperated in significant studies, ranging from epidemics to Chinese herbs. During Renji Hospital’s annual forum of its hospital history in 2018, professor Bridie Andrews, from Bently University of Boston, USA, discovered that Chinese and Western-style doctors both used the same drugs in old Shanghai. 

East-meets-West spirit of health care in Shanghai
Courtesy of Lu Ming

A file photo of the Shanghai General Hospital which was founded in 1864.

William Lockhart observed that the Chinese, like the Europeans, used arsenic to stop the fevers of “ tertian ague” (an old name for a malarial fever recurring every second day). Lockhart, who opened the first Western hospital in Shanghai, reproduced both family recipes by Chinese doctors and prescriptions from the “Collection of Renowned Prescriptions, ”an old Chinese medical book. That mirrored the medical aid team, sent from China’s Zhejiang Province to Italy, which took with them three Chinese recipes designed for alleviate coronavirus symptoms.

East-meets-West spirit of health care in Shanghai
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The northwest corner of Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, which was the site of Tung Chee Hospital founded by German doctor Erich Paulun in 1900. 

Stories behind these simple, modest historical buildings in Shanghai hospitals are real and profound. And now, maybe it’s the time to promote the East-West cooperation spirit, which occurred in Shanghai hospitals to fight against the virus and save lives together. So let’s start the series with the first Western hospital in Shanghai — Renji Hospital.

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