Legacy lives on in Thailand
May 20, 2019
In 1907, Presbyterians took steps to protect one of Thailand’s most vulnerable communities. More than a century later, the legacy of care lives on.
Dr. James McKean, a physician and missionary, began his work in Chiang Mai in 1889 and remained there his entire missionary career. His first contribution was creating a smallpox vaccination program that reached more than 200,000 Thai people. In 1905, he began to treat leprosy sufferers who were rejected from society with no homes and no means of caring for themselves. Word of the country’s first leprosy care center spread quickly, and patients began to come there by the hundreds.
The need became so great that McKean worked with the minister of the interior of Siam, the high commissioner of Chiang Mai, and the prince of Chiang Mai to create a care facility on Koh Klang, a river island.
Leprosy is a chronic, progressive bacterial infection. It primarily affects the nerves of the extremities, producing skin ulcers, nerve damage and muscle weakness. Leprosy is contagious, but only after regular contact during a prolonged period.
At the height of the disease, more than 3,000 people lived permanently on the grounds. By the turn of the 20th century, McKean was recognized as one of the leaders in leprosy community care. Cut off from the general population, schools, shops and community centers were developed. The community had its own currency and its own police force. For many years, each family was given a tiny cottage on the island and taught skills to earn a living, while the mission doctors ministered to both their health and their souls.
As patients began to be cured, they learned they could not go back home because of the stigma of the disease. So, McKean began buying land and creating new villages. There are now over 20 villages established by McKean that are still overseen by the institute that bears his name.
There was no cure for leprosy until the early 1980s. Now, a three-drug regimen for six to 12 months can alleviate the disease. After the cure was widely available, new cases of leprosy dropped significantly and McKean began to adapt, turning itself into a rehabilitation center.
Today the handicapped, those in need of surgery, rehabilitation and the very poor come to McKean looking for help. There is vocational training, education and other programs to help those in need. McKean has even opened a retirement home for Thais and expatriates.
At the annual mission meeting of 1948, there was a proposal to rename the Chiang Mai Leper Asylum the “McKean Leper Home.” Today, it is the McKean Rehabilitation Center and Hospital, a service branch of the Church of Christ in Thailand, a longtime PC(USA) global partner. There is also a village for the elderly at McKean for those who have been cured of leprosy but have no family left.
Mission co-worker the Rev. Sharon Bryant, serving with the Church of Christ in Thailand, knows the Presbyterian connection was even closer than partnership. Her father was the director of the institute.
Dick Bryant graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in 1945 and made the decision to go into mission work in China with the United Presbyterian Church. He and his first wife, Adeline Fox Bryant, went to Beijing in 1946. Following the death of Adeline in childbirth, Dick married Evelyn Coovert, a Lutheran missionary nurse, in 1948. Driven out of China by the Communists, the Bryants were sent to Thailand. Dick Bryant taught theology at the McGilvary Theological Seminary in Chiang Mai from 1952–57. After launching the Christian Service Training Center for lay leaders in Chiang Mai, he spent time evangelizing in rural areas. He served as director of McKean from 1977–82. Evelyn Bryant participated in the mobile clinics that McKean operated.
The Bryants retired in 1986, but returned at least six times — in 1992, 1993, 1996, 2001, 2002 and 2003 — three times serving as interim manager of the Bangkok Christian Guest House, once in the Department of Evangelism, and twice as evangelistic leader at Pranburi Training Center in South Central Thailand.
Kathy Melvin, Director, Mission Communications, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: McKean Rehabilitation Institute in Thailand
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
God of life, summon us to service with the poor and oppressed, so that our collective actions may facilitate the healing of our relationships with one another and with all of your creation. Urge us toward wholeness. Amen.