1804 -1888

American physician, missionary and diplomat.

Introduced Western medical techniques to China.

The Howlands stayed with the Parkers when they were in Canton.

Personal Life

Peter Parker was born in Framingham, Massachusetts to a poor farming family.

When his father died and the farm was left to his sister and her husband, Peter was free to pursue an education.

He wanted to become a missionary and felt that the most effective way to do this was to become a medical missionary.

The American Board of Missions gave him financial help to attend Yale

where he obtained both medical and theological degrees.

Medical Missionary

In 1834 at the age of 30, Peter Parker became the first Protestant medical missionary to China.

He established the first hospital in China with the help of Howqua, a wealthy merchant and a good friend of Americans, who offered  free use of one of his big factories.

It was known as Canton Hospital and Parker Hospital.

At first he treated diseases of the eye, but later expanded his practice to many other maladies, mostly tumors.

He also introduced Western anesthesia methods – first ether and then chloroform.

He worked with the Chinese painter Lam Qua, who painted patients with various tumors to document their maladies.

Some of these are part of a collection of Lam Qua’s work held by the Peter Parker Collection at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University.

Parker also trained several Chinese students who became skilled in medicine and surgery.

Return to the United States

In July 1840 the First Opium War broke out and Dr. Parker was forced to return to the United States.

He discovered that he was famous, receiving many invitations to speak in churches and to visit various dignitaries.

He was able to use his influence to urge the American government to establish diplomatic relations with China.

Parker met and married Harriet Webster, a relative of Daniel Webster. She was fifteen years younger than Peter.

The Parkers sailed for China in June 1842.

As the first Western woman to be permitted residence in China, the Chinese were extremely curious of Harriet. but she was accepted and loved, especially for her interest in children and their care.


Diplomatic Work

Besides his surgery and hospital work, Dr. Parker was drawn into the service of the U.S. government.

His love for the Chinese people and their culture and his fluency in the language made him a useful bridge of understanding between the two countries.

He worked for the United States as an interpreter during Caleb Cushing’s negotiations of the Treaty of Wanghia.

At the beginning of the Taiping Rebellion he was on a mission from Shanghai to China when the steamer Larriston was involved in a shipwreck where 31 people died, but he survived.

At the time he was carrying some letters from Bayard Taylor for the New York Tribune; those letters went down with the ship.

Despite all his success, the American Board of Missions terminated their financial relationship with Parker because they felt he was spending too much time on his medical and diplomatic work, and not enough time on evangelism.

Read Peter Parker’s Account of the Shipwreck

Canton, 1853

The Howlands stayed with Peter Parker and his wife while they were in Canton in 1853

before leaving for the return trip to New York.


Bayard Taylor was also impressed with the medical work of Peter Parker

and was acquainted with him through their work for the United States government.


Later Life

It is estimated that Peter Parker treated about 50,000 patients during his 23 years in China.

Dr. Parker and his wife returned to Washington and built a retirement house opposite the White House,

now called Peter Parker House.

After 18 years of marriage, they had their first and only child, Peter Jr.

For 30 years the Parkers lived here, receiving notable and in­teresting visitors from around the world.

The American Board of Missions made their peace with him, making him a corporate member.

The Peter Parker Medal at Yale is named for this distinguished medical and divinity school alumnus.

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