1804  — 1888

Peter Parker

Pioneer American medical missionary who later served as U.S. Commissioner to China. He is said to have “opened China with a scalpel.”

Peter Parker was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, on June 18, 1804, the fifth of six children. His father was a poor farmer whose ancestors had immigrated from England. Parker was brought up in a pious Christian family, and underwent a Christian conversion as a teenager. At the same time, he believed that God was leading him into the ministry. He worked on the farm and taught in local schools for several years. He preached his first sermon after the death of his father in 1826. The next year, he entered Amherst College; he was already considering the possibility of missionary service either to the American Indians or overseas.

Unhappy with his educational experience after three years at Amherst, he transferred to Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut for his fourth undergraduate year. In the spring of 1831, he was powerfully moved to consider overseas missionary work during a revival at Yale. A visit to Yale by Rufus Anderson, Senior Secretary of the ABCFM, further confirmed this interest. After he graduated with a B.A. in 1831, Parker told his family that he intended to become a foreign ,nd received their blessing. He applied to the ABCFM that fall and began graduate studies in theology and medicine at Yale, with the purpose of serving in China.

Having received an offer of free passage to China with him by merchant David W.C. Olyphant, he applied for and received permission to complete his studies in only two-and-a-half years in order to sail early. Parker was ordained as a Presbyterian ministry in May, 1834. The next month, he was commissioned as a missionary by the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM. His instructions were to: 1. Acquire facility in the Chinese language and familiarity with Chinese customs for the first two or three years in China; 2. Focus on “the circulation of the Scriptures & other religious books, & tracts, & the direct preaching of the Gospel;”and 3. Use his medical training to relieve physical suffering and to introduce knowledge of Western “arts and sciences.” (Anderson, 209)

The Board made it clear that Parker was to provide medical services and education “only as they can be made handmaids to the gospel. The character of a physician, or of a man of science … you will never suffer to supersede or interfere with your character of a teacher of religion.” (Quoted in Anderson, 209) The tension evident in these instructions was to cause friction between Parker and the Board for many years.

Parker sailed for China June 4, 1834. He was not the first medically trained person to be sent by the ABCFM, but the concept of “medical missionary” was not yet developed, and would only grow through the experience and career of Parker.

First Years in China

In October, 1834, at the age of thirty, Parker arrived n Canton (Guangzhou). The city had  almost one million inhabitants at this time. There were three other American missionaries in Canton at the time: Elijah Coleman Bridgeman, Samuel Wells Williams, and Edwin Stevens, who had been a friend of Parker’s at Yale.

At first he devoted himself to language study and observation of local customs. Only two months after landing in China, however, he learned from Karl Gutzlaff, the pioneer German missionary, that foreigners had freer access to China in Singapore, so he moved there. Within a month, he had opened a dispensary, where more than one thousand Chinese were treated from January to August 1835. Already, he had deviated from his instructions to concentrate upon language study and then on direct proclamation of the gospel.

He returned to Canton in September, 1835, and promptly opened a hospital and dispensary in a building where more than 200 patients could be “comfortably seated and prescribed for; in addition, the house afforded shelter to at least forty in-patients” (Wong and Wu, quoted in Anderson, 213). Treatment was given free of charge.

Soon Parker knew that he would need assistance from Chinese physicians, so he began training Chinese men. The first was Kwan Ato, a nephew of the painter Lamqua. Kwan, the first Chinese to acquire skill in Western medicine and surgery, later became famous and, after retiring from the hospital in the late 1860, and going into private practice, very wealthy. By 1837 Parker was training three other young men.

Parker decided to specialize in treating eye diseases, but of course had to treat all other sorts of ailments, too. “In the first three months he treated 925 patients, of whom 275 were women.” (Anderson, 215). He was the first Westerner to operate on Chinese women. A huge tumor on the face of a teenage girl was successfully removed; a man with a cancerous tumor on his arm was saved from death by a successful amputation; and thousands of patients were relieved of cataracts by simple surgery. “Before and after” portraits were painted by Lamqua.

Although Parker had received no actual hospital training at Yale, and may never have witnessed an eye operation, he quickly became known for his remarkable skill as an eye surgeon. He often commented on the remarkable courage and self-restraint of Chinese patients, who had to undergo surgery without anesthesia.

As his reputation spread, Parker found himself swamped with patients of both sexes and from all classes of society, including local magistrates, military officers, provincial governors, the famed Commissioner Lin, and even a member of the imperial family. Those with urgent needs would be treated the same day, where possible, while others were given tickets for another day. Many waited outside the hospital all night in order to obtain a ticket. Seated on a bench in a crowded room, patients would be operated one by one by the Western doctor. Chinese assistants followed him to set up the wounds and apply adhesive plasters and bandages. Mothers would hold up their children over their heads so that they would not be suffocated by the heat of the dense crowd.

With the help of several other foreigners, Parker founded “The Medical Missionary Society in China,” which was the first medical society in the world.

At Home

When outbreak of the First Opium War in 1840 led to a blockade of Canton and all foreigners were ordered to leave, Parker returned to America, after almost six years in China. He took with him a young Chinese student to help him with language study. While on furlough, now famous as a medical missionary, met with outgoing President Van Buren, his successor President John Tyler,  and with Daniel Webster, the new Secretary of State. He urged them to establish diplomatic relations with China and to send an American “minister plenipotentiary” – that is, am ambassador – to China to represent American interests there.

He met and, in March, 1841, married Harriet Webster (thought to be related to Daniel Webster), who was fifteen younger than he, after a courtship lasting only four months. A few weeks later he traveled to Europe, where his medical reputation brought invitations to meet leaders of both church and state (including the king of France), and where he tried without success to raise funds for the support of his hospital.

Parker took advantage of his time in the U.S. to attend lectures in Philadelphia, which greatly increased his knowledge of the latest developments in surgical procedures.

Back in China

The Parkers sailed for China in June, 1842, just before the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to the British and opened five treaty ports to foreigners for residence and trade.

He re-opened his hospital in late 1842 in the same building provided free of rent by the merchant owner, Howqua. Harriett became the first Western woman to reside in Canton, and perhaps in all of China. Using skills he had learned while in America, he performed the first lithotomy (removal of bladder or kidney stones) in China. By 1845, the hospital had treated more than 18,000 patients, most of them for eye disease. In 1847 Parker used sulphuric ether as an anesthesia in an operation to remove a large tumor from a man’s arm. Two years later, he began using chloroform.

Besides medical care, worship services were held at the hospital on the Lord’s Day, with average attendance of over one hundred reported. Despite the remarkable welcome given to his surgical operations, hardly any Chinese were converted through the work of the hospital. Parker’s absorption in medical work and consequent neglect of evangelism and the distribution of religious literature, plus the lack of conversions to Christ over many years, caused Rufus Anderson to write Parker in 1845 and tell him that he must find other sources of income if he wanted to continue making medicine the focus of his ministry.

Devastated, Parker applied for and received an appointment as paid Secretary and Chinese Interpreter to the United States Legation in order to provide for his family and support his medical ministry. At the same time, he asked to be continued on the rolls of the American Board, since he still considered himself a Christian missionary. The Board denied this request, since Rufus Anderson did not think missionaries should diverge from instructions given them to make direct proclamation of the gospel their first priority.

The Diplomat

Partly as a result of Parker’s urging, in 1842 President John Tyler sent Caleb Cushing to China as the first American Commissioner to that nation, with instructions to secure a treaty that would allow Americans the same right to trade as the British. Cushing appointed Parker as “Chinese Secretary to the Mission” and also as confidential advisor, in 1844, with the annual salary of $1,500 plus expenses. 

During negotiations for that treaty, Parker found that “nearly all of the Chinese representatives were his personal acquaintances, some had even been his parents, and their parents also.” (Anderson, 223) Parker played a significant role in the discussions which led to the Treaty of Wanghsia, signed in 1844, ratified by the emperor that same year and by the U.S. Senate in 1845. Treaty provisions granted America rights to the same five ports “opened” by the Treaty of Nanking (Canton (Guangzhou), Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai), as well as the right to build and operate hospitals, schools, and places of worship. The United States agreed to support China’s prohibition against opium against British insistence on that trade. “And all this was accomplished without bloodshed!” (Anderson, 223)

Parker believed that “a real bond of friendship now binds these two great nations of the East & the West,” and that it heralded a new beginning in Sino-American relations, which was truly the case. (Anderson, 223)

Trying to Serve Two Masters

During his six-months-long absence from the hospital, Parker had left his student and associate Kwan Ato in charge. After the treaty was signed, he returned to Canton and resumed his work as a surgeon. In June, 1845, he learned that the American Board had terminated his support as a medical missionary. A few weeks later, he received news that James Buchanan, American Secretary of State, that he had been appointed as “Secretary and Chinese Interpreter to the Missions of the United States in China,” a part-time paid position.

In his letter to Buchanan, Parker wrote, “acceptance of [the position] was compatible with my continued labors in my missionary capacity…” and that he would “endeavor to discharge [his] duties with fidelity and with such ability as I possess, ever watchful for the interests and the honor of both countries.” (Anderson,  225). Note his desire to seek the welfare of China as well as that of his own nation.

For the next nine years, Parker served in his official capacity as Secretary and Chinese Interpreter but also as advisor, and periodically, charge d’affairs, and – unofficially – as acting commissioner during long periods when there was no commissioner in China.” (Anderson, 225) He faced many challenging problems related to the “Taiping Rebellion, the coolie trade, and various legal cases involving Americans in China,” in the midst of riots, insurrection, difficult living and traveling conditions, and health problems, while trying also to continue his medical services when in Canton.” (Anderson, 225)

His wife Harriet, whose health was not good, sailed home in December of 1848; she later returned. His diplomatic work required long absences from the hospital, which was closed because of unstable political conditions in 1854; a fire later damaged its buildings.

As a diplomat, parker was not highly regarded. “He was considered to be rigid, stubborn, tactless and harsh, by some.” (Anderson, 226).  After resigning his position as Secretary in 1855 and in ill health, parker sailed home with his wife in May, 1855, expecting never to return to China. Almost immediately after arriving in Washington, however, he was appointed by President Franklin Pierce as Commissioner of the United State of America to the Empire of China. He sailed in October, 1855, visiting London and Paris along the way “to confer with their ministers of foreign affairs, and arrived in Hong Kong at the end of December.” (Anderson, 227)

He established his base in Macao and hired Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American college (Yale) as his secretary. Another missionary, Samuel Wells Williams, was appointed to Parker’s former position of Secretary.

His first official act was to “issue a ‘Public Notification’ denouncing the so-called ‘coolie trade,’ and calling ‘upon all citizens of the united States to desist from this irregular and immoral traffic,’ which he likened to ‘the African slave trade in former years.’” (Anderson, 227) He warned that all American citizens who participated in this trade would lose the protection of their government, a position in which he had the support of the American government.

He failed in his attempts to re-negotiate the Treaty of Wanghsia, his main responsibility, however. “When the emperor refused to see Parker, or even to allow him to come to Peking, parker proposed to the British and French envoys in 1856 that they for a triple-allioance and carry out a joint armed naval expedition to demand negotiations for treaty revision. This proposal was rejected by the British and the French.

His next proposal, to the United States government – that the United States should occupy Formosa (Taiwan) to force the Chinese to negotiate – was rejected, as was another a few months later, that America should occupy Formosa (Taiwan) permanently. Probably because of Parker’s bellicose stance, he was recalled by President Buchanan in 1857, after only nineteen months as Commissioner. He left China with Harriet in August, 1857, at the age of 53, having been in China for a total of twenty years.

Only a few years later, the Second Anglo- Chinese War, in which France supported Britain, led to the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin) in 1858. America joined in the treaty negotiations, though it had not taken part in the war. Two missionaries, S. Wells Williams and W.A.P. Martin, served the American delegation as interpreters. Provisions of the treaty included not only “the opening of new cities for foreign residence and the right to travel in the interior, but … religious toleration” for Chinese converts and protection for foreign missionaries. (Anderson, 229) Parker had argued for all these items, and was regarded as having paved the way for them.

Retirement in the United States

Parker and his wife living in Washington,  D.C., for the next thirty years. He served as vice president of the American Evangelical Alliance, and a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1871 he was named a member of the board of the ABCFM.

He received various honors, including an honorary M.A. degree from Yale in 1858.

His first child, a son named Peter, Jr., was born in 1859, after eighteen years of marriage. Parker was almost 55 years old at the time. The Parkers lived close to the White House, and were often visited by President Abraham Lincoln, who loved to hold little Peter on his lap.

Peter Parker died January 10, 1888, “with his wife at his side,” at the age of 83. (Anderson, 231)


Parker himself said in 1854 that: “To tens of thousands of Chinese I have been permitted to preach the gospel of salvation, and to fifty-two thousand five hundred, afflicted with all the physical ills of our common humanity, directly and indirectly, I have been permitted to administer, with a degree of success that demands praise to Him who is the giver of health and life.” (Anderson, 226) A year later in his journal that “the crowning joy of the retrospect arises from what I may have been permitted … to do directly or indirectly, for the cause of My Redeemer in China, and the comforting hope that my tears, prayers, and preaching of the gospel have not been in vain.” (Anderson, 226) Clearly, he saw himself primarily as a medical missionary, and not as a diplomat.

Peter Parker was, without a doubt, a great physician who brought marvelous medical care to tens of thousands of Chinese; founded a hospital that eventually treated hundreds of thousands of patients and became a leading teaching hospital in China; trained Chinese physicians in Western medicine; and established a medical society that promoted modern medicine in China for decades.

On the other hand, aside from his first success in the Treaty of Wanghsia, he failed as an “ambassador” of his own country. He did not possess the necessary qualities for a diplomat, and his bellicose response to rebuffs by the emperor reflected the imperialistic tenor of the West at the time.

Parker’s very participation in diplomacy has raised questions, as it does with the role of Williams and Martin in treaty negotiations. These “unequal treaties” stuck in the craw of the Chinese for almost a hundred years; brought Chinese believers and  foreign missionaries under the protection of gunboats and bayonets; forever tainted Christianity with the stain of being a tool of Western imperialism; and became an albatross around the necks of Chinese Christians, even to this day.

Perhaps a comparison with J. Hudson Taylor will be helpful: After his reports in 1868 to the British consul of violent actions by mobs stirred up by local magistrates in Yangzhou led to both bad press and even worse responses by the British, Taylor never again appealed to his government for protection; nor would he allow later CIM missionaries or their converts to rely on their governments.

For reasons that are unclear, Parker also seems not to have succeeded as an “ambassador of Christ,” for his preaching and medical work brought hardly any Chinese into the Christian fold. Perhaps one reason is that he was not able to balance medical work with evangelism and teaching, as he had been instructed by the Board. Treating physical illness always seemed to take precedence over addressing spiritual illness.

Here again, J. Hudson Taylor stands as a stark contrast. He had even more formal medical training than Parker; he engaged in caring for wounded and sick Chinese within a week after arriving in Shanghai; he ran a hospital by himself for a while in Ningbo; later, in Hangzhou, he opened a clinic that served thousands of Chinese; for decades, he served as physician to Chinese and foreigners alike. In spite of all this, he always made preaching his first priority, even when in charge of a small hospital. And always, his preaching brought results, in the form of solid conversions and adherence to the church of Christ.

Parker first applied for a job with the American government in order to support himself and his family. Faced with a similar lack of funds from overseas, Taylor relied on God to sustain himself, his family, and his hospital, and was able to devote himself to missionary work without taking secular employment.

All this leads one to raise questions about the vitality of Parker’s life with God, and points to the dangers of trying to serve two masters.

Still, nothing can detract from the outstanding medical services that Parker rendered, and there is no doubt about his commitment to Christ or to the welfare of the Chinese. For these he is rightly remembered with honor.


  • Gerald H. Anderson, “Peter Parker and the Introduction of Western Medicine in China.” Brill: Mission Studies, 23.2, 2006, 203-238. Anderson makes use of other sources, including K. Chimin Wong and Lien-the Wu, History of Chinese Medicine, 1985.
  • A.J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, volumes 1-7.  London: Hodder & Stoughton and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1981-1989. Now published as The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy, two volumes. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.