West China School of Medicine, one of China's most respected medical schools, celebrated its 100th anniversary in July. The school and its associated hospital (also known as Huaxi Hospital and, some claim, now the world's largest) were founded by missionaries and survived a tumultuous early history. Some highlights:
1891–1892 Omar Kilborn, a 25-year-old doctor, helps persuade the Canadian Methodist Church to establish a medical mission in Sichuan. He and his new wife make the three-month journey to Chengdu from Shanghai (up the Yangtze) with other missionaries. A few months after arrival, Mrs. Kilborn dies of cholera. Dr. Kilborn founds a men's hospital with other missionaries.
1894 Omar marries fellow missionary Dr. Retta Gifford, a recent arrival from Canada. The couple is stationed in Le Shan.
1895 Leslie Kilborn is born, and the family moves back to Chengdu, where Boxer Rebellion rioting destroys all foreign-owned property in the city. The family barely escapes to Shanghai but returns later that year. Retta helps found a women's and children's hospital. Three more children are born to the couple over the next six years.
1910 The missionary group founds West China Union University (WCUU) and makes Omar its first chairman of the senate.
1911 As a member of the Chinese Red Cross Society, Omar provides first aid on the battlefields during the revolution to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
1914 The university establishes a Faculty of Medicine, using the two Canadian Mission hospitals as teaching hospitals. Both Retta and Omar teach at the faculty.
1920 While on furlough in Canada, Omar contracts the Spanish flu, followed by pneumonia. He dies, and is given the unique (for a missionary) honor of a Buddhist memorial service in Chengdu as well as a Christian one. Retta returns to the university, where she fights to allow women to be admitted as students.
1921 Leslie Kilborn finishes his medical studies in Canada, marries fellow doctor Janet McClure, and moves to Sichuan. The couple is stationed in Peng Xian [County].
1922 Leslie and Janet move to Chengdu, where Leslie teaches physiology and biochemistry at the university.
1925 With Sichuan in turmoil due to fighting between warlords, Leslie is severely wounded by a bullet as the family travels back from a vacation at E'mei Shan.
1927 Janet gives birth to her and Leslie's third child on a river junk as the family travels to Shanghai (en route to Canada for furlough). Further downriver they switch to a larger boat, which frequently comes under fire. Shortly after they arrive in Shanghai, the city is captured by Chiang Kai-Shek's forces.
1928 Leslie earns his doctoral degree in physiology from the University of Toronto, and he and the family head back to Chengdu. At WCUU Leslie continues to teach and eventually becomes director of the College of Medicine and Dentistry.
1933 Retta retires from the university (she later dies in Toronto at age 79).
1937 The Sino-Japanese War breaks out, and students and staff from several coastal medical schools flee inland to continue their work at WCUU; some stay with Leslie and Janet. Japanese bombs later destroy some WCUU and hospital buildings, which are rebuilt.
1946 The last of the staff and students of the "refugee universities" return home.
1950 WCUU and its hospitals are taken over by the central Communist government. Around this time, the Kilborns find themselves unable to continue their work and trickle out of the country. These include Leslie's sister Constance and her husband, who had run a school; Cora, another daughter of Omar and Retta, who taught nursing at WCUU; and Leslie and Janet's daughter Mary, who worked for a few years as a nurse in one of the hospitals.
In 2000, the university, having undergone two earlier name changes, merged with Sichuan University and was re-named West China School of Medicine. Its affiliated hospital was named West China Hospital.
This article by Shawna Williams was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 35 ("transportation"). The author is an instructor at West China School of Medicine. Most of the information in this timeline was drawn from Bertha Hensman's 1967 article "The Kilborn Family," published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Photos by Dan Sandoval.