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In 1889, the young Dr Omar Kilborn wrote a letter from Heidelburg to Rev. Sutherland, the chair of the Canadian Methodist Missionary Society, challenging the church if not his young country of Canada to start a mission in West China. He wrote “Should our church go forward, not backward in her foreign mission work, should she not step boldly in and take her place alongside the rest in the conquest of this greatest heathen nation for Christ?” And so a small group was sent to plant the seed for what was to become one of the largest foreign missions in the world, and one of the largest single site hospitals, the present West China Hospital.

Omar Leslie Kilborn

Written by Sandra Anderson





Omar was born in 1867, in Frankville, Ontario near Kingston. He grew up with Methodist religion, which held evangelization as it’s core. He likely attended the social gospel sermons at Greenbush Church, near Athens Ontario where he went to high school. But it was his friend James Hall, who brought Omar into religion one evening at his home. He writes “I was so fortunate as to have this mans influence thrown about me before he had been many months at school, and I shall praise God for it as long as I live”. His deep personal experience with Christ had begun, and this would guide Omar for the rest of his life.



Omar had lost both parents by the time he was 14, so he had to learn many life lessons on his own. Support from his brother Roland, a physican and his own work as a self taught telegrapher, allowed him to go to Queens University where he engaged his mind in arts and medicine. He earned his BA, MA and MD by age 21.


Kilborn had done much travel prior to going to China. Telegraph work and post graduate studies took him to major cities in Canada, Great Britain and Europe. He was aware that more doctors were being produced than were needed, and the profession was becoming a bit over glorified, in his opinion. Although worthy of esteem, due to his having earned academic medals in chemistry and ophthalmology, his studies in Edinburgh and Heidelberg and work in London hospitals, he wanted no special recongnition for himself. He had been offered a teaching position at Queens shortly after his graduation. But he was trained to heal the sick, and there were parts of the world that had no medical care at all. When he signed up for the Student Volunteer Movement at Queens, along with his friends James Hall and George Hartwell, he was determined to provide care to where it was most needed. Not many volunteers wanted to go to remote West China. But for Omar, this was where he chose to work. Not once did he waver from the challenge he set out for himself. He always looked forward, to what he thought were the best interests of the people of Szechwan.


The first group set sail on Oct 4 1891, and after 3 months in Shanghai, they countinued their journey up the Yangtze to Chengtu, arriving May 21, 1892.


He soon became aware of the inhumane living conditions of the people of Chengdu. Beneath the misery of rampant diseases, opium addiction, the terrible treatment of women and girls, the unsanitary conditions, and the anti foreign riots, Omar saw people who were eager to learn and who wanted to be helped. He faced a severe personal challenge himself not shortly after his arrival,   the devastating loss of his dear wife, Jennie Fowler to cholera. As the small group of missionaries gathered for the burial, the reverence emitted from Jennies’ service, drew interest from the locals, and they wondered what was in the book read at the service. This was the first glimpse of the Chinese interest in the gospel. Omar mourned desperately after Jennies’ death, and pleaded to have a new missionary sent for companionship. The language difficulty forced Omar and Dr Stephenson, the other doctor in the mission, to close their first dispensary within months of opening. The young 24 year olds’ eagerness to work, had to be put on pause, as they contemplated the huge task before them of helping the 70 million people of Szechuan. Two medical missionaries weren’t enough. From this beginning, Omars vision was to bring Western medicine to the Chinese, for the Chinese and by the Chinese.


In response to Omar’s plea, a second group of missionaries was sent to Chengdu in 1893. With Omar as their escort, the journey up the Yangtze was dangerous. Their boat hit some rocks close to shore and began sinking within minutes. Stranded on the sandy bank, the group retrieved what they could from the sinking boat. For four days they dried their clothing, books and bedding by a coal fire. This shared activity brought Omar together with one of the new recruits. He and Dr. Retta Gifford were soon engaged and married by May of the same year.


Retta contributed greatly as a medical missionary. She oversaw the medical treatment of women and children, organized the building of new hospitals for them and began the anti foot binding movement in Szechwan. She was passionate about training Chinese women doctors, whom she eventually taught at the Medical College alongside Omar. She, like Omar, was fluent in Chinese and was among the first western women to walk in the streets of Chengdu. She continued working in the Women and Children’s hospital until her retirement in 1933.


Thus began the setting up of the medical hospitals in Chengdu in 1894. Omar was then sent to Loshan to open the first expansion site, securing property for a chapel and hospital. Retta prepared a new facility for treating women and children. They would work together seeing between 200 and 300 patients a week, treating blindness, gunshot wounds, breast cancer. It was impressive to see a married couple working together, in equanimity and happiness.


They were also resilient to the anti-foreign riots of 1895, fleeing over walls and hiding behind curtains with their 2 month old son. Upon their return from the coast, they quickly rebuilt damaged properties and homes.


As the mission expanded, so did Omar’s push for increasing medical care. He stressed the ability of the medical missionary. He felt strongly that reducing prejudices and superstitions were essential in bringing people to Christ.


He travelled often to outstations where he preached, assisted in medical work, oversaw construction of buildings and wrote extensive and detailed reports back to Canada about their progress. He initiated the “one man medical station, where the doctor was not only the physician and surgeon but also the steward, head nurse and supervisor of floor washing”

He was also developing a real love of the country and its people.

He writes;


“The Country is magnificent. There are mountains and valleys and plains, rivers and streams falling rapidly or slowly winding, but the most conspicuous object in the landscape is after all the Chinese man and woman and the children. They are everywhere. So numerous at once both mysterious and commonplace, ingenious yet without knowledge, industrious yet poor.”


The second anti-foreign riots, the violent Boxer Rebellion which ended in 1900, was followed by more acceptance and desire for what western missions in China were providing. The West China Mission led much of the expansion in Szechuan.

He had become an ordained minister by this time and preaching was an important part of his work. As one Christian said on his passing – Thou knowest O Lord, if Dr Kilborn had not started this mission, while others might have preached in West China, yet I would never have heard the gospel”


Following the creation of the Chinese Church, education in West China became unionized and western teaching practices were flourishing. Soon the decision for a Union University was made but not without much discussion.


This collaboration among denominations was a strength of the Canadian mission. Omar Kilborn was a founding member and the first Chairman of the Senate of West China Union University.


RO Joliffe said on his passing “His leaving us has meant a loss to all missions. I remember once at Advisory Board, being struck with the way all missions looked to him to take the lead and the initiative. It was the same with the Chinese Christians.”


Omar became the Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Methodist Missionary Society. He managed financial records, communicated plans and results of consultation meetings of the education committee, the materials needed and the use of buildings and land needs and distributed them to missionaries. As one missionary reports, “There has been such a big hole in the mission since Dr Kilborn went on furlough. I missed him, especially because he used to sort of unify the mission by his tremendous correspondence.” And he did this all in addition to his medical work and teaching.



During the rebellions of 1911 he organized the Chinese Red Cross Organization in Sichuan and provided months of battlefield relief. As one American missionary wrote at that time “Mr Kilborn was touched with the sufferings of the soldiers who usually had no one to give them first aid. He spent many months with the army. Knowledge of him marching through battlefields in straw sandals to get food, spread everywhere. Here was a great physician who left the comfort of his well equipped hospital to serve the common soldiers. The Chinese said, ‘surely he is a holy man, we have scarcely even seen such love for humanity.’



Chengdu became the centre for education and medicine and two new large hospitals, men’s and women’s and children’s, were built by 1914. Omar played a key role to make sure plans were based on the needs of the physicians and patients and that the highest quality was supported. He insisted that new doctors to the mission were fully qualified and have a sound mind and body, and be able to sleep well. They must be prepared to study Chinese for two years because “finding a Chinese interpreter was like finding an ice burg in the Yangtze.” As Morse says “his high standard and his special contributions should be written into history”



After the building of the hospitals, Omar was finally able to take the lead in creating the Medical College for the University. His goal of bringing western medicine to China had now come to the final requirement, to train Chinese doctors. It was a small enrollment of 9 students and only 4 did graduate in 1918. Retta and Omar were the among the first teachers at the college.



Omar was a tremendous writer contributing to the Missionary Bulletin Our West China Mission, Canada’s Share in world Tasks, and wrote two texts for new missionaries.



Chineses Lessons, a textbook for missionaries to learn Chinese, was published in 1917 and its second edition was in 1921. In the introduction of the book, Omar Kilborn wrote: “The first business of the missionary on arrival in China is to “get the language”. And most missions now allow the first two years for language study. We might better avoid that word “allow”; saying rather that a minimum of two years is required by most missions for language study, during which period no other responsibility is put upon the new worker.”



Heal the Sick, a detailed account of the appeal made by Omar Kilborn for the medical mission in West China. Rev. T. E. E. Shore, the then General Secretary of Foreign Missions, wrote: “It is exceedingly timely that Dr. Kilborn’s book has been presented at this time, when the spirit of missionary co-operation at home is so manifest in the Laymen’s Missionary Movement, and in the Young People’s Missionary Movement, and when the spirit of enquiry as to Western science and religion is so strong in the Chinese nation. No one within my acquaintance of many mission fields is more competent to present a statement of Medical Missions than Dr. O. L. Kilborn, who has given nineteen years of missionary service in West China, and who has served in medical missionary practice, in educational work, in evangelistic work and has been in touch with great missionary movements.”



Hidden behind Omar’s quiet presence was a man of strong influence. Some say Omar spoke better Chinese than English, and his home was often visited by local people, who would come to him for advice. From Daniel Dye “I would rather go for to him for good straight forward advice than any person I know in China. From a Student Conference he wrote “ He got the students by his talks and by his private interviews. He did some of the best and quietest work of that whole conference”



When Retta returned to Canada to begin the formal education of their four children, Omar spent many years apart from the family he adored.   He kept his spirits up with the great pride of their accomplishments and likely an essential sense of humour. On a trip back to Canada he writes to Retta, “I am so anxious to get back to you and the children. If this boat doesn’t go any faster I will get out and push”



Two months after receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Victoria College, Omar’s succumbed to pneumonia and passed away in Toronto  Aug 1920.    In China, large numbers of Chinese friends and missionaries attended a Buddhist memorial service of great magnitude in a gloriously bannered Confucian temple. Never before or since, had a missionary been honoured this way.



Upon his death, his son Dr. Leslie Kilborn, took over his role and worked in the hospital until 1952, then took a position in Hong Kong.


Their daughter Constance, my Grandmother, taught an arts curriculum at the Canadian School that she ran with her husband Lewis Walmsley. Cora, their youngest daughter became a registered nurse and spent many years working with Retta in the Women’s Hospital in Chengdu. Their youngest son, Kenneth, spent his life in Canada heading up his successful engineering firm, and is honoured in the Engineering hall of Fame.


The third generation of Kilborn’s in China was Leslie’s daughter, Mary Kilborn who worked as a RN in Chengdu.

Dr. Robert Kilborn, Leslie’s son, was the founder and supporter of the West China-Surgical Symposium, which took place just this past April, a medical collaboration between The University of Western Ontario and Sichuan University, formerly WCUU.


At the United Church Archives, I opened a folder abundantly filled with fragile letters to a Dr Retta Kilborn, from the year 1920, 95 years ago. Feeling the magic of timeless handwriting, I slowly read about what her husband had meant to those who knew him: beloved physician, friend and benefactor, skilful diplomat and consensus builder with extraordinary energy and boundless confidence, lacking self-interest, a sympathetic listener, and having positive convictions regarding his call to be a missionary. These words confirmed what I had come to learn about my great grandfather, Dr. Omar L. Kilborn,


At the end of his book Heal the Sick, Omar writes, “what a privilege to be a part of the uplift and in the moulding of what has been in the past, and destined to be again, one of the greatest nations on earth!


Together with these Christian men and women the people of Szechuan began to free themselves from the inhumane conditions they had lived in for hundreds of years, and prepare for the revolution of change that was appearing in their future.


I would like to end with an excerpt from a poem included in Heal the Sick.

Lord help me live from day to day

In such a self-forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray

My prayer may be for others


Dr. Kilborn, Dr. Gifford and all the missionaries to West China are now being recognized for their contributions to the people of Szechuan.


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