Dr. Connie Shemo, SUNY Plattsburgh – Female Missionary Physicians

Dec 21, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Connie Shemo of the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, explains the connection between the women’s foreign mission movement of the early twentieth century and two pioneering female doctors.

Connie Shemo is an associate professor of history at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. Her teaching and research interests include U.S. women's history, Chinese history, and the history of medicine. She holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton.

About Dr. Shemo

Dr. Connie Shemo – Female Missionary Physicians

How can two women, who gained fame on two continents in the early twentieth century and helped inspire a new career for women in China, be forgotten today?

In 1896, two Chinese girls, both 24 years old, graduated from the medical school at the University of Michigan.   Known in China as Kang Cheng and Shi Meiyu and in the United States as Dr. Ida Kahn and Dr. Mary Stone, their graduation received a lot of attention in both countries.  They went back to China and established hospitals for women and children and nursing schools, treating hundreds of thousands of patients in the course of their career.   They became leaders in establishing a nursing profession in China.  Their example was also a factor in inspiring untold numbers of Chinese women to pursue careers as physicians themselves. 

While they practiced in China, in the early 1900s, they were well known in the United States as well.   Ida Kahn and Mary Stone were Methodist missionary physicians.  They traveled to the United States and spoke in front of hundreds of American audiences in fundraising tours.  The women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement at this time.  Ida Kahn and Mary Stone were famous heroines in this movement.  One Smith college graduate remembers a “hot argument” about whether Mary Stone or the progressive reformer Jane Addams was “the greatest living woman.” But, after the decline of the foreign mission movement in the 1920s, Ida Kahn and Mary Stone were gradually almost completely forgotten in the United States. In part because of their opposition to Communism, they are no longer known in China. 

The woman’s foreign mission movement has rightly been criticized for its “cultural imperialism,” its ethnocentrism and disrespect towards other religious traditions.  But it needs to be studied as an important part of both American history and Chinese history, and the shared history between these two countries, currently the two biggest economies in the world.   Remembering  Dr.  Ida Kahn and Dr. Mary Stone, or Kang Cheng and Shi Meiyu, is a good starting point for this history.