2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

From Wife to Missionary: Lillian Dickson’s Medical Missions in Post-War Taiwan

Jen-der Lee

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Lillian R. Dickson (1901-1983) accompanied her husband James Dickson (1900-1967), who was sent by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, to Taiwan, then a colony of Japan, in 1927. She lived and worked in Taiwan until she died at the age of eighty-two, except for the period between 1940 and 1947 when the couple were transferred to British Guiana because of growing tensions and war between Japan and the United States. During the first thirteen years of her life in Taiwan, Lillian helped out her husband as a dutiful pastor’s wife. Upon their return after the war, she claimed that she did not want to be just a missionary’s wife; instead, she wanted to be a “missionary wife.” Lillian then started to raise funds through her monthly chatty letters to American friends and churches and began her medical, charitable, and educational works throughout Taiwan. In 1954, she established Mustard Seed, Inc. so that the donors on her mailing list, that had then accumulated to 25,000 in numbers per month, could qualify for tax deductions in the US. This article uses Lillian’s private correspondence, her fund-raising letters, church reports, news clips, biographies, and other material to explore the transformation of medical missions in the twentieth century, the gender fashioning of missionary roles and related international politics. Three points stand out.

First, we see the transformation of medical missions in Lillian’s works. Western missionaries came to the East with the imperial expansion of the mid-nineteenth century. Many among them were well aware of the effectiveness of Western medicine, most obvious in the case of surgery, not only in curing the body but also in conveying miraculous messages. Earlier missionaries to Taiwan, whether medical professionals or not, applied surgical techniques to make converts, much in accord with other nineteenth century practice. But after constant governmental promotion in the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), Western medicine was accepted and perceived as normal and modern by the Taiwanese people. In post-war Taiwan, the fear that “the foreign devils would take out your organs” subsided, and at the same time surgery was no longer seen as miraculous. On the other hand, the preliminary medical help that had accompanied surgical success since the beginning of medical missions, such as dispensing drugs, bandaging wounds, and emergency deliveries of babies, became essential in poverty stricken locations, especially in the mountain areas. Lillian began her medical mission in a period when Western medicine was no longer challenged, and her works often followed the pattern of medical aid, nursing and caring, occupational training, and, finally, conversion. She reacted to needs, raised funds through all available means, recruited professionals, and built hospitals, sanitaria, maternity wards, orphanages and churches. Amidst the devastation of post-war Taiwan, surgery was no more a miracle than loving care. Lillian achieved her medical missions in this new context, and in turn encouraged ongoing trends.

Second, although she accomplished numerous works, Lillian carried out her missions with the image of being “unofficial.” She has taken nursing training in New York before she came to Taiwan; she attended complicated childbirths in mountain villages, and she wore a nurse’s uniform when she bandaged the aborigines, but she often claimed that she was not a proper medical person. Instead, she positioned herself as an all-embracing mother who discovered illness in her children, listened to their moans, and solicited help to remove their pains. Indeed, she explicitly expressed that she did not want to be just a missionary’s wife and pursued her mission career to the extent of establishing an institute of her own. However, both she and the authors of her biographies continuously portrayed her medical, charitable and educational works as “unofficial” and only carried out by a woman who felt impelled to see people’s needs as a kind of housekeeping. This fashioning of an “unofficial” image probably demonstrated her style of reacting to incoming requests and making decisions on the spot instead of planning programs beforehand. But more importantly, this way of fashioning her role became a useful device to encounter challenges, whether from distrustful aboriginal leaders, questioning leper patients, suspicious medical professionals, uncomfortable board members of the Canadian Presbyterian Church, or from a free world that was about to forsake the “free China” she protected as a mother to its communist aggressors.

Finally, the fact that Lillian was an American citizen should not be overlooked in evaluating her “unofficial” missions in post-war Taiwan. When she first arrived, she was an American sent by the Canadian Presbyterian church to a Japanese colony of mostly Chinese inhabitants. Her situation was different from a British missionary in nineteenth century India, nor was it similar to that of George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901), the first Canadian missionary to Taiwan when it was under China’s imperial rule. Lillian and her husband’s projects were not protected by the colonial government, and their lives were closely watched in the late 1930s as Japan’s relation with the US deteriorated. But the situation completely changed when they returned in 1947. After its retreat from mainland China to Taiwan, the Nationalist government completely relied on American aid, military, political, and economic. Being Americans, the Dicksons were often able to use discretion in their works. Mustard Seed, Inc. received donations mostly from the US rather than Canada. Lillian went back to the US for her annual speaking tours until 1978 when she was almost eighty; she recruited support by visiting charitable institutions, expressed the tremendous needs of Taiwan through interviews on television and other media, and asked American military and diplomatic agencies to help her transporting all the monetary and material resources she managed to obtain back to Taiwan. In the process, Taiwan was introduced in the US as “Free China,” the frontier in combating Communism and the best touch-stone location to spread Christianity, while America was perceived by the Taiwanese, in contrast first to the Japanese colonizers and then to the threatening Communists across the strait, as a synonym for Christian charity. Lillian became, perhaps involuntarily, the spokesperson for both sides and accomplished her mission work through the exchange of information and images.


Keywords: Lillian Dickson, Taiwan, medical mission, women missionary, America