A Heroic Woman From Grey County 

A Heroic Woman From Grey County who made great changes as a doctor in China in the 1890s and early 1900s.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

In last week's column, I introduced you to Dr. Retta Kilborn of St. Vincent Township. As a young heroic woman from Grey County, she challenged the status quo of her era and became one of very few women who became medical doctors. After two years of practicing medicine in Owen Sound, she travelled to China as a medical missionary. There she met and married Omar Kilborn and, together, they forged a legacy of many decades in the fields of medicine and education in that far eastern nation. 

Last week, I detailed how Dr. Kilborn had challenged the Chinese custom of foot-binding and how, through her efforts and others, that hideous practice was largely curtailed. However, this was only the beginning as far as Dr. Retta Kilborn's impact on early 20th century Chinese culture. 

In 1896, she opened a hospital for women in rented buildings which she had to first repair and then adapt for use as a medical facility. The opening of this hospital was an important event in that area of China, as the women of the area had avoided the hospital which had been run by Omar Kilborn due to an aversion to treatment by male doctors. 

After her husband, Omar, had successfully led a campaign to create the West China Union University and Faculty of Medicine, Retta successfully lobbied for the admission of women to study medicine. She also taught pharmacology, pediatrics and anesthesia at the university. 

Dangerous Times for a Heroic Woman 

Working in a foreign land could be difficult, at best, for a young woman from Grey County. China at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was also extremely dangerous. 

In 1894, there was a political uprising in West China. The Kilborn's and their newborn infant were driven from their missionary complex and forced to seek shelter within the walls of the city of Chengtu. The city magistrate took them down the river to Chungking and safety. During this enforced absence, they lost all of their possessions. When they returned in 1896, they were forced to rebuild the mission.

In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion occurred and the Viceroy of the province of Szechwan ordered all white missionaries to be killed. However, the Kilborns must have had a very positive impact on the Viceroy. The same man who had issued the proclamation to kill all white missionaries smuggled the Kilborns out of China! When they returned to Chengtu in 1901 all of their possessions, including buildings were as they had left them. The Viceroy had placed his official seal on the buildings, thus saving them from plunder and destruction. 

Dr. Omar Kilborn helped to create the Chinese Red Cross Society in Szechuan Province. During the 1911-12 Revolution, he went into the battlefields, much like Grey County's Dr. Norman Bethune would in later decades and aided the sick and wounded. 

An American member of the Methodist-Episcopal Mission described the actions of Dr. Omar Kilborn as follows: 

Dr. 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. He had difficulty getting proper food. It was the rainy season, and he usually had to go on foot — his bare feet in straw sandals — and thus marched through the battlefields. Knowledge of him spread everywhere. Here was a great physician who left the comfort of his well-equipped hospital to serve the common soldiers. Soldiers were not honoured in China in those days. The Chinese said, "Surely, he is a holy man, we have scarcely ever seen such love for humanity.” 

Tragedy struck Retta Kilborn in 1920. While on leave from their duties, her husband was taken ill, and he died shortly afterwards. 

There is an irony in Retta Kilborn's circumstance after her husband's death. She had travelled to China as a missionary for the Women's Missionary Society. However, upon her marriage to Omar, the society had forced her to sever her connection with that organization. The policy of the WMS did not allow married women to hold an official post within the organization. Her tireless efforts from the date of her marriage to the death of her husband had been unofficial and voluntary. After she became a widow, she once again applied for and was given official status with the Society. 

Retta Gifford Kilborn, born in St. Vincent Township near Meaford, was truly a heroic woman and magnificent representative of the fortitude and determination of the people of Grey County. I would like to thank again her granddaughter, Marion Walmsley-Walker for sharing with me her story of her grandmother.

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