James W McKean, MD (1860-1949) was an American doctor and missionary who pioneered leprosy work in Thailand, including the construction of the Chiangmai Leprosarium in 1908. He began his work in Chiengmai in 1889 and remained there for his entire missionary life, carrying out general medical and evangelical work. In 1927 the King of Siam bestowed the “Insignia of Knight of the Order of the Crown” upon JW McKean in appreciation for his work among the leprosy sufferers in Thailand.
Dr James W McKean was born in Iowa, USA, on 10th March, 1860. Both his parents died before he was seven and he also lost a brother in infancy. He was educated at Lenox College in Hopkinton, Iowa and studied medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, graduating in 1882. He spent seven years in private practice in Nebraska. Although he married, his first wife died and he remarried and left America with his new wife Laura Bell McKean (nee Wilson) on 11 September, 1889. 6 weeks later they arrived in Chiang Mai, a Thai city which was then home to around 20,000 people. Here the McKeans joined an American medical missionary who had arrived in the region earlier, Rev McGilvary and his Siamese assistant Chantah Indravude. Together they ran a dispensary, which was later to become known as the “ American Hospital”. Dr McKean became superintendent of the Hospital in 1901.
In the early 1900s, McKean was responsible for instigating a smallpox vaccination program that reached at least 200,000 people in Northern Thailand. In 1905, Dr McKean gained the support of the Minister of the Interior of Siam, the high commissioner of Chiang Mai, and the Prince of Chiang Mai himself, to create a leprosy home on Koh Klang, a river island off Chiang Mai. By 1908, there was an embryonic leprosarium, consisting of three cottages and six adults, . Over the next twenty years, under the care of J McKean and Chantah Indravude, the leprosarium would grow dramatically.
In February, 1909, Dr and Mrs McKean went to New York on account of Mrs McKean’s poor health. Before returning at the end of 1910, Dr. McKean spent two months studying tropical disease in England. He spent another fortnight visiting hospitals and leprosy asylums in India and Burma. He gained some practical knowledge of leprosy and returned with new ideas of how to organize a leprosarium and 13,000 dollars in donations to see his plan through.
Dr McKean viewed leprosy as infectious and incurable. He recognized that the disease was not hereditary, that it was infectious only to some individuals while the rest were immune to the disease, and that it was transmitted only by “prolonged and intimate contact.” He believed that quarantine was an effective control measure that had divine justification in the laws of Moses. At a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Health and Quarantine in 1916 he urged the quarantine of American leprosy victims. This hearing resulted in the first federal leprosy Hospital, which opened in February, 1921 at the Indian Camp Plantation, near Carville, Louisiana.
From 1922 to 1930, McKean was joined by his son, J. Hugh McKean, who acted as “associate superintendent” of the leprosarium and business manager for the Chiang Mai hospitals (American and McCormick) and four dispensaries.
As the population at the leprosarium boomed, Dr McKean looked overseas for funds. He made films about the life of leprosy victims and the new life which they began upon entering the leprosy asylum. The first movie was called, The Eternally Accursed. It was filmed in 1923 by a representative from “Pathe Orient” out of Shanghai using a script written by Dr ME Barnes of the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr McKean’s films can be found in the McKean Rehabilitation Center and the Payap Archives in Chiang Mai.
Dr McKean retired from the mission in Chiang Mai on March 10, 1931. At By the end of his career McKean had made substantial contributions to public health in Chiang Mail. He had helped to build up the American Hospital (and directed it for 24 years). He had also established a vaccine laboratory and the leprosy asylum, as well as 4 churches and over 45 leprosy villages. the leprosarium, there were more than 500 inhabitants, including 350 leprosy patients, in 143 buildings, including 116 cottages, 9 dormitories, a church, an impressive administration building, recreation center, a road for most of the island, a school, sewing factory, tool and furniture factory, and a form of self-government.
Dr McKean was honored by King Rama VII with the Order of the White Elephant and the Order of the Crown of Siam.
At the annual mission meeting of 1948, it was proposed to rename the Chiang Mai Leper Asylum as the “McKean Leper Home”. Today, the institution exists as McKean Rehabilitation Center and Hospital, a service branch of the Church of Christ in Thailand.
James McKean died peacefully in America aged 88, on 9th February, 1949
The article is adapted from TR Brown TR. Chapter 2 in Contagious Compassion: Celebrating 100 Years of American Leprosy Missions. Providence House: Franklin, 2006, pp. 25-42.
Memories of Missionary’s Ministry at McKean: Dr.Trevor Smith. M.D.