Dr Tom Cochrane – missionary to China

Dr Tom Cochrane

Thomas, was born, 12 November 1866 in 16 Wellington Street, Greenock into a working class family.

 His father died when he was 13 years old and Tom had to seek work in the docks in order to help support his mother and the rest of his family.  He managed to cope with working in the docks and still have the energy to attend school in the evenings.  He continued to balance the demands of work and study even when he passed the entrance exams to Glasgow University where he studied medicine.

In 1896, at the age of 29, Tom graduated as a doctor and sought his future abroad as a medical missionary serving with the London Missionary Society.  In 1897 along with his new wife, Grace Hamilton Greenhill, Tom left the United Kingdom heading for Chaoyang in southern Mongolia where he would be the only trained doctor within 1,000 square miles.   In September 1897  their first son was born and in 1899 twin sons were born.

Later that year two other missionaries, Rev and Mrs James Liddell, parents of Eric Liddell the famous runner, came to Chaoyang, freeing Tom from many of his preaching duties.

In 1889 the reception he received from the local Chinese turned, in many cases, from friendly acceptance to open hostility, Tom and Grace were now seen as “foreign devils”.   The Society of the Harmonious Fist, the Boxers, rose up against these “foreign devils” and all Christians.  Thousands of Christians, minister and priest, man, woman and child, were hunted down and killed.  Life in Chaoyang became untenable.  The Cochranes and the Liddells had to flee for their lives.

Dr Cochrane returned to Beijing, China in 1901. His commission was to rebuild a small hospital and re-establish a limited work and witness in the Chinese capital.  At the end of February 1902 Tom came face to face with the Ch’ing Dynasty.  As he was walking along, a cart bearing the colours of the imperial court came swaying dangerously along the road.  As the cart passed Tom, its occupant was thrown clear,  landing at the Doctor’s feet.  Tom helped the man to his feet, explained he was a doctor and offered to help.  The injured man rejected the offer of help, but thanked Tom as he climbed back into his cart.  This man was Prince Su, one of the Empress’s most favoured ministers.

When cholera threatened the area Tom found himself alone in the fight.  There was little hygiene or sanitation to prevent the spread of the germs, nothing to prevent the epidemic sweeping through the whole area.  Tom had answers but did not know how to get the Chinese authorities to act on the instructions of a hated westerner.  Tom sought the help of Sir Robert Hart, head of the Chinese Customs Service in Beijing.  He listened to Tom and agreed to give him a letter of introduction so that he could raise his concerns with the one man that Sir Robert felt could help him.  The letter was addressed to Prince Su.

The Prince read the letter of introduction.  He then listened to Tom and assured him that he was only too happy to do as the Doctor suggested.  The Prince acted quickly and soon notices carrying the royal seal were being put up all over Beijing advising the people what they could do to avoid catching the killer disease.  Thousands died in the city, but the disease was halted and there was little infection beyond Beijing.  Tom’s success brought its own reward.  Tom was now a regular visitor to the Palace where he attended Prince Su and his son.  He was no longer a “foreign devil” but a welcomed friend.  Work on his hospital continued. His influence in the Palace increased as well and he was called upon to treat many of the Palace eunuchs including  Chief Eunuch, Li Lien Ying, confidant and companion of the Empress-Dowager Tzu-Hsi herself.  Li Lien encouraged Tom to petition the Empress for help in establishing his college hospital and that he, Li Lien would encourage Tzu-Hsi to grant his request.

The Grand Councillor, Na T’ung  agreed to help him compose his petition and  to present it on Tom’s behalf to the Empress-Dowager.  To the surprise of everyone she not only provided Tom with his much needed funds, she also gave her official patronage and approval for the first ever Medical Training College for Chinese students.  With the official patronage of the Empress-Dowager gifts started to come in from others within the Royal Court.  The hospital which Tom had begun was completed with the addition of a college wing and the Peking Union Medical College was opened.

Tom also added another significant name to his list of patients.  The Duchess Te, a niece of the Empress-Dowager, attended the new hospital, seeking Tom’s help.  After a successful operation the Duchess officially made Tom her brother-in-law and his wife, Grace, her sister.   Tom and Grace were now included in the Royal family of the Ch’ing Dynasty, the last of the great Chinese dynasties.  This acceptance of Tom and his work led to more donations and the expansion of his work including the formal royal opening of the college

In 1906 Tom was commanded to appear before the Dragon Throne, to be presented to the Empress-Dowager herself and to have the honour of thanking Tzu-Hsi for her support and patronage.  He was the only missionary on whom such an honour was ever bestowed.  Prince Ch’ung read the prepared speech of thanks.The humble son of working class Greenock parents had, in the Lord’s service, been able to influence the most powerful person in the vast land of China. 

In 1915 Dr Tom Cochrane left China to return to London.  In that year he started the “World Dominion” periodical on the Christian movement throughout the world.  In 1924 he set up the “Survey Application Trust” to promote Christian Missionary work.  In 1931 Tom purchased the “Mildmay Centre” in London and established the “Mildmay Movement for World Evangelism”.  In 1949 he compiled the first edition of the “World Christian Handbook”

Tom Cochrane died in 1953 at the age of 87.

The story of his life in China has been published under the title “The Doctor and the Dragon” by Margaret Aitchison; ISBN 0 7208 0545 7.