Published in 1967 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (vol. 97), "The Kilborn Family: A Record of a Canadian Family's Service to Medical Work and Education in China and Hong Kong" by Bertha Hensman gives a comprehensive overview of the Kilborn family's work and lives in Sichuan. The information below was compiled from that article.
In 1892, the fastest way to Chengdu from Shanghai was along the river. It took about three months. The journey took its toll on Jennie Fowler, who, along with her husband, Omar Kilborn, was on a pioneering mission of the Canadian Methodist Church to begin work in West China.
She died only two months after they reached Sichuan. Her husband remarried a year later; his second wife was a newly arrived medical missionary named Mary Alfretta Gifford, who was "the first woman doctor with modern training to work in ... China West of the Yangtse Gorges." They were initially stationed in what is now Le Shan amid outbreaks of Boxer Rebellion-related anti-foreigner violence. Over the next decade, they helped set up the Chengdu Hospital for Women and Children, a men's hospital, and the West China Union University (now the West China Medical College). Omar Kilborn helped set up the Chinese Red Cross Society of Sichuan in 1911, helping to treat wounded soldiers of the Chinese Revolution, and his wife became president of the Chengtu Anti-Footbinding Society, eventually seeing the abolition of foot-binding, and advocated for medical colleges to admit female students.
The couple had four children, and the three eldest maintained close ties to Chengdu during their lives. Their eldest son, Leslie, went to Canada for his university education and married fellow missionary and doctor Janet R. McClure, a daughter of Canadian missionaries who were worked in Henan and Shandong. Leslie and Janet had both spoken Chinese as children and thus were permitted to skip the usual mandatory language studies at West China Union University so that they could go straight to work in rural areas surrounding Chengdu. Leslie was eventually transferred to Chengdu, where he lectured in Chinese. He also translated physiology textbooks into Chinese and did research of minority ethnic groups, including Miao and Nosu.
At that time, Mount E'mei was a "summer resort for many missionaries," and Robert McClure Kilborn, the first child of Leslie and Janet, was born there. The couple's eldest daughter, Mary Eleanor, was born in Chengdu in 1924 and grew up speaking Chinese. She returned to Canada for higher education but returned to Chengdu in 1949 where she began working in the University Hospital.
In the meantime, Leslie's sister, Constance Ellen Kilborn, had earned degrees in English and history and a teacher's qualification in Canada. With her husband, she went to West China where they led the Canadian School in Chengdu, originally for missionary children, and then accepting all children, and eventually becoming a refugee school outside of Chengdu. After World War II, it relocated to northern India.
The youngest daughter of Omar and Mary Kilborn, Cora Alfretta, also promoted nursing education in China, working in the Chengdu Hospital for Women and Children, a teaching hospital founded by her mother.
For much of the time these three generations of Kilborns were in China, the country was in a tumultuous period of history, first with local feuds as warlords battled, the Manchurians were overthrown, then as the Communist and Nationalist parties struggled for control of the country, and finally as World War II broke out. Missionaries in China carried on their work until the early 1950s, when most left, including Mary Eleanor Kilborn in 1951, and her parents, Leslie and Janet, who went to Hong Kong a year later.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 60 ("old school").