As in the ministry of Jesus, healing the sick has long been seen as part of missionary outreach, but the early missionaries and their wives found themselves responding to local needs with little medical knowledge and no formal qualifications. In 1839, the first medically qualified WM missionary, Richard B. Lyth, was called to treat Fijian chiefs and gained a wide reputation as a healer.
In the wake of the Taiping Rebellion, Josiah Cox planned a mission to Hankow in Central China that was to be medical as well as evangelistic and educational; and in 1864 Dr F. Porter Smith found patients waiting even before news of his arrival was announced and the Hospital of Universal Love was founded. In 1886 Dr Arthur Morley established work in Teian and more centres were set up in Anlu, where Dr Ethel Rowley (née Gough), the first fully qualified woman doctor (Hankow, 1896) served after her marriage. 1871 saw Charles Wenyon founding Fatshan Hospital in South China and successfully training medical students. Roderick J.J. Macdonald joined him in 1884, extending the work to Wuchow in 1897. Other distinguished colleagues followed in all the China Districts, but Dr George Pearson, who built a hospital at Shaoyang, Hunan in the 1920s, was one of the last before enforced withdrawal followed the 1950 Communist take-over.
In 1884 the Women's Auxiliary sent Agnes Palmer, a Eurasian, to India as their first Zenana medical worker in Madras. Facing smallpox and cholera epidemics, she opened a dispensary, enrolled for full medical training and became the first WMMS woman doctor in 1889. Similar appointments were made in Calcutta and in 1887 the brief service of Henry Lunn, the first medically qualified missionary in India, saw an extension into Tiruvalur. Emilie Posnett (C.W. Posnett's sister) and Sarah Harris began their unique ministry in 1896, setting up village dispensaries in Hyderabad. Hospitals followed: the Holdsworth Memorial Hospital, one of South India's great institutions, opened in Mysore in 1906 and smaller institutions flourished elsewhere.
John Bond, a 'Joyful News' lay missionary, opened a dispensary at Igbo-Ora, Nigeria in 1904. In 1912 Dr J.R.C. Stephens, first medically qualified missionary in West Africa, extended this work and established the Wesley Guild hospital at Ilesha in Nigeria. Dispensary and hospital work was also developed elsewhere in this region by the different Methodist missionary societies. In 1968 the Dabou Hospital, , built by volunteer labour and funds from young Methodists, was opened. Qualified practice in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) began in 1914 when Dr Sidney Osborn was appointed, at government invitation, to a hospital at Kwenda. In 1915, the first PM medical missionary, Dr H.S. Gerrard (born on 25 August 1886 at Swinton, Lancs; died at Hazel Grove on 23 August 1969) went to the PM work at Kasenga. In Kenya the UMs founded Maua Hospital in 1928. The first work in South Africa came with the appointment of a doctor to the hospital at Mahamba, Swaziland (1926).
Pioneer work in the cure and rehabilitation of leprosy patients was done in Burma, Nigeria and India at such places as the Home for Lepers in Mandalay (1892), the settlements in India at Bankura (1902) and Dichpalli (formally opened, 1915). One of the most significant achievements was the work of leprologist T. Frank Davey in Eastern Nigeria. Staff at the Nixon Memorial Hospital, Sierra Leone pioneered the treatment of Lassa fever.
More recently, smaller institutions such as Ngao Hospital, Kenya, have been handed over to government care. Scarce personnel have been effectively used in establishing primary care in the community and specialist care for such groups as those suffering from mental illness and AIDS. There is much to be proud of and enormous benefits to all parts of missionary work have resulted from over 150 years of service, despite constant curtailment through underfunding and lack of personnel, the nightmare companions of all such activity.
See also Nigeria Health Care Project.