State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care

Qiao Zhengyue
Founded in 1844 by English medical missionary William Lockhart, Renji Hospital started the history of Western medicine in Shanghai.
Qiao Zhengyue

It would be fair to say Western medical practise was still very primitive in mid-19th century China. But, thanks to English medical missionary William Lockhart and several other pioneering British philanthropists like him, medicine, health care and hospitals developed, became more sophisticated and a new era of hospital care was born.

Shanghai’s first Western hospital

The North-China Herald introduced the “new home” for the Lester Chinese Hospital on December 15, 1931. This “new building” still stands on the historic Shandong Road site of the hospital, which was Shanghai’s first Western hospital and retains its old Chinese name, Renji Hospital. This modern medical building was also one of benevolences left by legendary British billionaire Henry Lester who called himself a Shanghainese.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

The “new home” of Renji Hospital, completed in 1932, was modern, hygienic, functional and still in good use.

“Founded in 1844 by English medical missionary William Lockhart, this hospital started the history of Western medicine in Shanghai,” says medical historian Lu Ming from Shanghai No. 4 People’s Hospital.

Sent by the London Missionary Society, Lockhart was one of the earliest expatriates to come to Shanghai. He arrived in town on November 5, 1843 before the city officially opened its port on November 17, according to Taiwan historian Wang Ermin’s book “Modern Shanghai Pioneers of Science and Technology.”

As Walter Henry Medhurst, another missionary from the London society arrived in December, Lockhart discussed with him and then opened a clinic simply called “Chinese Hospital” in a humble house outside the east gate. This small clinic, which treated Chinese patients for free, was seen as Shanghai’s first Western hospital and predecessor of today’s Renji Hospital.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

 Renji Hospital was founded in a humble house in 1844. 

Though small and simple, the hospital was successful from the beginning and treated some 19,000 patients from 1844 to 1845. After several relocations, Lockhart purchased a site between today’s Shandong and Fujian Roads and made it the hospital’s permanent address in 1846, with 60 beds. The “Chinese Hospital” was widely called “Shantung Road Chinese Hospital” by expatriates, although the Chinese people called it “Renji Hospital.” Renji means mercy and relief in Chinese.

Lockhart was not only a high-skilled doctor, but also a brilliant founder of an institution. He formed a committee of trustees joined by local elites, which hosted annual meetings to evaluate the hospital’s development, and helped to raise funds.

“From the beginning, Renji Hospital differed from other missionary hospitals. Although London Society missionary initiated it, it was a charitable hospital owned and managed by British residents in Shanghai. The main source of funding was through donations,” says Huang Wei, a PhD researcher of Shanghai modern history from the Shanghai Library. 

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

A file photo of street view outside the hospital

According to her study on Renji Hospital’s incomplete early medical records, the number of its patients from 1844 to 1856 reached 150,000 and continued to grow over the years. Lockhart later founded another Chinese hospital named Shi Hospital in Beijing, which developed into the famous “Peking Union Medical College Hospital.”

“Lockhart had lived in China for 22 years and treated over 200,000 patients, a few of whom turned Christians. Although not very successful as a missionary, Lockhart’s achievements as a doctor was remarkable. Renji Hospital and Shi Hospital founded by him enabled more Chinese to contact and understand modern western medicine, “ Huang said.

After Lockhart returned to England, Renji Hospital was managed by his successor, Dr. Benjamin Hobson, who later authored and translated a rainbow of books to introduce Western medicine in China.

 “The hospital founded one of Shanghai’s first nurse schools in 1914 and saw a period of fast development after 1927. After receiving Henry Lester’s benevolence that year, it was renamed Lester Chinese Hospital and built a steel-and-concrete building in 1932, which was the city’s largest hospital building of its times, “ says medical historian Lu Ming. 

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

A group photo of students who graduated from Renji Hospital’s nurse school in 1946

Lester’s legacy

This steel-and-concrete building built with Lester’s legacy was described as a “new home” by the 1931 North-China Herald newspaper. According to the hospital’s 1927 annual meeting, Lester’s legacy to the hospital amounted to 1 million taels in money for the purpose of rebuilding and about 1 million taels in property for endowment.

During the meeting, Judge Peter Grain, chairman of trustees of the hospital, said the late Mr. Lester’s legacy allowed them to have the main hospital in its present position at Shantung Road for “one reason to deal with street accidents” which were numerous.

Born in 1840 in Southampton, Lester, who had received training in London as an architect and land surveyor, came to Shanghai in 1863-64 to survey a Shanghai Municipal Council settlement. After this service was completed, he started his own business. His company, Lester Johnson & Morris, became one of the most well-known architectural firms in town. A man of great foresight, he saw the potential of Shanghai and made large investments in property. Prior to his death, he was one of the largest landowners in Shanghai.

He never married and lived a very simple life. Before he died in May 1926, Lester bequeathed most of his assets to philanthropy, particularly for the building of the Lester Chinese Hospital, the Lester Institute of Medical Research and the Henry Lester School and Institute of Technical Education.

Within a decade after he left this philanthropic will, the three medical and educational projects were completed one after another in the early 1930s. And Renji Hospital’s (Lester Chinese Hospital) new building was the first to be put into use.

“Modern in every respect, from the soft-toned walls that have replaced the unpleasantly dazzling white of another era to the efficient operating theatres, the Lester Hospital should service as many as 150,000 outpatients during its first year, judging by past records,” The North-China Herald reported on December 15, 1931.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

A model of Renji Hospital’s new building in 1932 

According to the report, the “new home” was modern, hygienic and functional. Food was transferred to the ward kitchens throughout the building by service lifts, thus obviating the necessity for trays or carts. All food was cleaned and prepared in an outer room before it is brought into the shining hall.

Four operating rooms were on the fourth floor, painted a soft green, which is believed to do good to tired eyes. The wards, as is the case throughout the building, had windows on three sides.

The fourth floor was reserved for women and children, with the latter — a bright little room with a nursery frieze and buff-colored walls — accommodating 12 infants. The maternity ward was on the third floor, with its baskets on wheels for the infants whose mothers resent having them far away. And down the hall was the nursery, “where rows and rows of babies sleep away the better part of their first three weeks of life (presumably).”

X-ray and other operating rooms were on the second floor, as well as the hospital pharmacy, special clinics, dental, ear, eye, nose, skin and the outpatient department for women. The corresponding section for men was located on the first floor while the emergency rooms and observation ward were just opposite the entrance to the hospital.

“Though in the center of the city, the hospital is fortunate in its pleasant grounds overlooked by the wards. The building, of aerocrete and plaster, in tan and brick-color, is dignified and pleasing, with its sweep of graveled drive to the porte-cochere and its single evergreen tree. With characteristic foresight, the northern rooms are devoted to laboratories, operating theaters and offices, so that the pleasant sunshine is ensured for the wards, “ the newspaper describes.

The report specially noted that the fifth floor was largely devoted to the Lester Institute for Medical Research, for clinical as well as laboratory work.

In his book “Ninety-Five Years A Shanghai Hospital 1844-1938,” Eric S. Elliston, the then secretary of trustees of the hospital, wrote that Lester had long been connected with the hospital since he was architect for the planning of the new hospital building in 1873. Since those earlier days, he had been a constant supporter of the hospital in many ways, contributing considerable sums from time to time. 

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

A building for male patients opened in 1874.

He said that the Lester Institute added an extra floor to the original five-storied building plan for special use.

“Later on the Lester Hospital and Lester Institute of Medical Research located on the new building’s fifth floor cooperated in an intensive way. The institute not only undertook technical guidance to hospital, but also took over its laboratory department to help carry out various aspects of research and application in bacteriology, serology, and pathology. The combination of basic research and clinical treatment made the hospital’s standard second to none in Shanghai,” Lu Ming said.

He added that more domestic doctors joined the hospital since the 1930s. After World War II ended, Chinese doctor Chen Bangdian became the director. In 1948, the hospital had up to 318 beds.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Qiao Zhengyue / SHINE

The building was one of benevolences left by legendary British billionaire Henry Lester who called himself a Shanghainese.

During the next 50 years, this oldest Western hospital of Shanghai continued to grow and now has four branch hospitals of more than 2,000 beds across the city plus a medical research institute specialized in tumor. The old hospital on Shandong Road, where the bricked building donated by Henry Lester still stands, is called the Western branch of Renji Hospital. During the past months, Renji Hospital sent 172 medical professionals to support three hospitals in Wuhan for treating COVID-19 patients.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Zhou Shengjie / SHINE

Renji Hospital sent medical professionals to Wuhan for treating COVID-19 patients.

In December 2019, the hospital celebrated its 175th anniversary by opening a hospital museum.

“Renji Hospital has witnessed the vicissitudes of history, the prosperity of Shanghai, and led to the development of medicine over 175 years. She will continue to be full of vitality, and will continue to strive to reach the peak of medicine,” as is written in the museum’s preface.


Yesterday: Renji Hospital

Today: Renji Hospital

Address: 145 Shandong Road M.

Architect: Lester, Johnson & Morris Co.

Built in: 1932

Tips: The hospital is open through reservation for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic period. The 1931 building is still for medical use.



Philanthropic British medical pioneer dies at the age of 84

WILLIAM Lockhart, who was so well known as a medical missionary in the Far East, passed away on the morning of April 29, 1896, at his residence at Blackheath at the ripe age of 84.

State-of-the-art hospital ushers in a new era of Shanghai health care
Courtesy of Renji Hospital

William Lockhart (1811-1896), founder of Renji Hospital, was the hospital’s superintendent from 1844 to 1856.  

Mr Lockhart pursued his medical studies at Guy’s Hospital and at The Meath Hospital, Dublin and became a member of The Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1834. He first began practice as assistant to Mr AS Wainwright, of Liverpool, where he remained for three years, but on the return of John Williams and Dr Moffat from their missionary journeys he was fired with the desire of becoming a medical missionary and offered his services to the London Missionary Society in that capacity. He was appointed to China and left England with Mr. Medhurst, then engaged as a missionary to the Chinese in Batavia.

Mr Lockhart began his work at Macau in 1839. From Macau he moved to Chusan, and as soon as Shanghai was opened up in 1843, he moved on to that city and founded a hospital there, which was most successful from the first, with Chinese patients soon reaching 10,000 within ten months. He returned to England in 1858, leaving the hospital under efficient superintendence for the further extension of its sphere of usefulness, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that it is at the present time the most important hospital for Chinese in China.

Mr Lockhart returned to China as Medical Officer of the British Embassy in Beijing in 1861 and during the two and a half years over 30,000 patients were treated.

He finally returned to England in 1864 and remained in practice until 1895.

In the exercise of his profession he was prompt, skillful and patient of results. Of keen insight, he was always quick at diagnosis and to the very last always prepared for an instant response to the call of duty. His loving kindness and tender cheerfulness endeared him to his patients, amongst whom he was always looked for, not only as the trusted adviser, but as the much-loved friend.

He had collected a large and valuable library of works on China, unique in its variety and comprehensiveness. This he gave quite recently to the London Missionary Society upon certain conditions, which have been carefully carried out, so that it is available for reference at the Mission House, and is known as the “Lockhart Library.”

Mr Lockhart was universally beloved; he was full of life, brightness and energy up to the very day before his short illness. The devotion and noble self-denial exhibited during his career as a medical missionary were carried through every relation of later life, and a more thoroughly upright and honorable man in all his dealings it would be very hard to find. In the most trying circumstances of his unusually varied life he always exhibited the utmost fortitude, while his kindness of heart endeared him to all who knew him.


Excerpt from The Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal, December 1, 1896

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