That there was figure in Guangdong history who also shares his name with a famous web slinger…Now, that’s just serendipity made in geek heaven.
That figure was Peter Parker.
Born in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1804, Parker was the son of a poor farmer and the youngest of five children. Like many young men born during the religious revival known as the “Second Great Awakening,” young Parker understood Christianity as a powerful, transformative experience. After studying at Amherst College and then Yale University, Parker pursued his calling to be a missionary.
Parker was interested in more than spreading the Word. His work would be a mission of science and civilization, healing bodies as he brought souls to Christ. After earning his BA in 1831, he enrolled in graduate studies at Yale, focusing on theology and medicine. In 1834, Parker finished his training and was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister. A year later, he was in Guangzhou.
In November 1835, Parker opened the Ophthalmic Hospital, the first Western-style hospital in Guangdong. The Ophthalmic Hospital specialized in treating eye diseases, but his introduction of anesthetic, at the time of sulphuric ether, revolutionized surgery in the region. Soon, patients suffering from a wide variety of maladies and deformities began coming to Parker’s clinic seeking treatment.
His blunt personality and unwillingness to compromise made him an odd choice for complex parleys with Qing imperial envoys sensitive to the slightest breach of protocol or foreign overreach.
One of the most common requests was the removal of tumors. Though Parker wasn’t a trained surgeon, he quickly developed a reputation for assisting all who came seeking his help. Parker’s work was aided by a young artist named Lam Qua whom he met at about this time. Parker commissioned Lam Qua to do a series of paintings and illustrations of the hospital’s patients, cataloging their infirmities.
The outbreak of the Opium War in 1840 sent Parker back to the US for a short time, but he returned to the China coast in 1844. There, he served as an interpreter for Caleb Cushing, another native of Massachusetts, who negotiated the Treaty of Wanghia on behalf of the US government. Parker thus began a new phase of his career. He had already turned away from his religious mission to become a man of science and medicine. After the treaty was signed, Parker would combine his medical practice with a new role as chargé d’affaires for the new consulate in Guangzhou.
He served in the capacity for 12 years until his health forced him to return to the US, only to be sent back to China by President Franklin Pierce to re-negotiate a new set of treaties in 1856. The Qing government, in the midst of the Taiping War, was unwilling to open negotiations and Parker sailed back home once again, although he did propose that the United States consider the forcible occupation of Taiwan as way to gain a foothold on the Asian mainland. While Parker employed a deft hand during his surgeries, as a diplomat he preferred to wield a cudgel. His blunt personality and unwillingness to compromise made him an odd choice for complex parleys with Qing imperial envoys sensitive to the slightest breach of protocol or foreign overreach.
It wouldn’t matter anyway. A few years later, the Anglo-French Expedition would force the Qing court to revisit the treaty issue by burning down the Imperial Gardens in Beijing. The Americans, as did many other nations, piled on the agreements foisted on the Qing government by the British and French.
After Parker returned to the states, he settled in Washington DC with his wife Harriet and had his first son, Peter, Jr., when the senior Parker was 55 years old. They were a well-known couple in Washington circles. They dined with Abraham Lincoln, and Parker served as a regent of the Smithsonian, while occasionally being sent abroad as an emissary of the US government, most notably to the Tsar’s court in Russia in 1871.
Missionaries in China, like Peter Parker, often found themselves in an awkward position. On the one hand, many felt they were doing—quite literally—God’s work. Residents appreciated the opening of orphanages, schools, and hospitals, which provided new forms of treatment. Parker’s Ophthalmic Clinic would go on to become the Canton Hospital and is today the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hospital, also known as the Second Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University.
On the other hand, missionaries were often the most visible example of foreign encroachment backed by the threat of military force and codified in treaties like the ones Parker helped negotiate. Many missionaries, including Parker, became adept in Chinese and appreciative of Chinese culture, but their mission—whether religious, scientific, or diplomatic—was ultimately to change the society. They hoped to “civilize” a society fiercely proud of its civilization. Conflicts were inevitable.
Perhaps that’s why Parker is remembered as much for his brusque diplomacy as he is for the patients he cured and remains a fascinating figure in the ongoing story of the meeting between East and West.