Ruth Hannah Dickson
Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service
Taken prisoner Singapore
Moved many times, to Sumatra
24th December 1944
Daughter of Joseph Alexander and Lydia Ann Dickson, of Eglish, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland
5. H. 7.
JAKARTA WAR CEMETERY
FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH
Ruth Hannah Dickson
Missionary to Manchuria
1923 - 44
RUTH DICKSON hated the limelight. She was not one of those missionaries who are better at at talking about their Christian faith than putting it into practice, and her work was done so quietly and unobtrusively that much of it is chronicled only by the Recording Angel. She was always very reserved and humble about herself, and one can picture her astonishment and dismay (if such earthly feelings still are hers) at the idea of anyone writing the the story of her life. But to her many friends in Manchuria, Chinese, Irish and Scottish, she was almost the ideal missionary nurse - capable and hardworking, with a high professional standard, yet always human and thoroughly Christlike in her actions, and above all one whose strong faith in her Lord and whole desire to serve Him were the sole reasons for her presence in Manchuria. She occupies a unique position in the history of the mission, for she was the first trained nurse to be appointed by the Mission Board for work in Manchuria, and during her twenty-one years of service she played a considerable part in the establishment of an educated and well-trained nursing profession whose fully-qualified graduate nurses, having gone through a course comparable to that of nurses in Ireland, could take their place without much difficulty in a modern hospital in any country.
From the time of her conversion during a Faith Mission, Ruth had thought about missionary work, but the call was not clear to her, and it was hard to think of leaving home and family. On completion of her nursing training in the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1917 she volunteered for military nursing and saw service in France and later in Wales, where she nursed German prisoners of war. Later her mother became ill, and Ruth returned home and nursed her till her death in the summer of 1919. A year or two later, when she was acting as Sister in the Lisburn Infirmary, a patient who was brought there for an operation, was used of God to refresh her spiritually and to prepare the way for her to take the step which she had been considering for long. About this time Mrs McCammon’s description of the need of Newchwang Hospital for a matron touched her heart, and Ruth offered her service to the Mission Board. As always happens, there were those who tried to dissuade her. Some even of the committee feared that she was rather old to learn Chinese, and that language study might prove a real difficulty, but Ruth refused to be discouraged, and after some months training in Edinburgh she set sail for China in September 1923.
It was a memorable year for Manchuria, for no less than seven women missionaries, Irish and Scottish, arrived together, three of them nurses. After some months of language study in Peking, she wad able in September 1924, to take up her duties as Matron in the Newchwang Hospital. From the Manchurian Report of that year we see something of what Ruth’s arrival meant to Dr Phillips: “ I have left to the last the most important and really striking event of the year, and that was the arrival of Miss Dickson to help us .... Already her influence in the hospital is very apparent, and lots of things we thought good enough - “can do,” as the Chinese saying goes - are turned into “ no can do” and must be changed.” Ruth set to work at once. In spite of the limitations imposed by an old-fashioned building and not much money to spend, she determined to make the nursing side of the hospital’s work worthy of the fine reputation it already possessed for surgery. The job of a missionary nurse is perhaps one of the stiffest on the mission field and one of the most exacting, for she is expected to combine in her person the offices of matron, staff nurse, and sister tutor on the professional side, and at the same time to proclaim even more by her actions than her words the love of God and the compassion of our Lord for all the sick and suffering ones. Ruth succeeded in a remarkable degree in securing high professional standards without the loss of personal, human touch. The sick folk in the wards were never mere “cases” to be nursed back to health as efficiently as might, but individuals, with souls as well as bodies, for whom she wqs deeply concerned and who needed personal care and love.
Until Ruth went there, Newchwang had had no resident women missionary, and consequently a “Ladies House” did not exist. To begin with, her rooms were under the same roof as the Cottage Hospital which served the needs of the foreign community in the port. Here Ruth was expected personally, to attend to maternity and other cases in addition to her work in the mission hospital. She soon endeared herself to the foreigners and became “Auntie Dickie” to quite a circle of children. She commended her Christian faith by the spirit in which she undertook her exacting duties and by her unstinted giving of herself to any sick person. An English Sunday School in connection with St. Nicholas Church was a piece of work in which she enjoyed taking a share. She was somewhat startled one Sunday morning when a small scholar, on being asked to choose a hymn, said she wanted the one about “Satan’s host of fleas” They had a good laugh in private over this version of “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
Ruth realised that the preaching of the Gospel to the patients was so important a part of her hospital work as hygiene and good order. Like many nurses, Ruth did not herself enjoy preaching at the more formal ward services, but every Sunday afternoon when the wards were full of visitors as well as patients, she arranged for a Gospel service to be held. The helper sang and preached and gave out picture leaflets to the children, and also taught the patients to sing. She tells of some of the results in her report of 1933: “Last January an incurable who was going home asked to be baptised before he left. Two other male patients were baptised at the church while still with us. Thirty-eight men and thirteen women have registered their names as enquirers. Several others have professed conversion, among whom a young girl of twenty with a sad history. When only seven she was sold into a house of ill-fame, where she has been ever since. Soon after coming into the hospital and hearing the Gospel, she opened her heart to the Saviour and had a very real experience of His Salvation. Such cases as this make our hearts rejoice, and assure us that the work in His name has not been in vain.”
The kind of problem with which a missionary nurse may be asked to deal is illustrated in an interesting way in one of the incidents which Ruth described that same year: “Mrs Chao came to us for her ninth confinement. Her first eight children were all dead: this time she had a lovely baby boy. But alas, he too lived only a day or two, and a heart broken mother left us to return to her home. Mrs.Yen came in for her seventh. She already had five girls, and certainly did not want another, but another she got. The next morning the nurse came and said that Mrs Yen was going home and that she was going to leave the baby hehind. “Well, I said, “ we are always thankful for small mercies, but not for such a troublesome one as that.” “But, matron,” the excited nurse persisted, “if they take the baby out they will throw her away.” I sent for Mrs Chao and said, “Mrs Chao, would you like this baby girl ?” “I would,” said she. So unwanted Baby Yen, became Baby Chao, and she is now the much-loved and adored daughter of a poor Christian family.
Here is the record of another year’s work: The number of those who handed in their names as enquirers was sixty-one men and thirty women. It is a joy when walking around the wards to see so many with their Bibles and hymn books ...... A man came with a tumour seven pound weight hanging from his neck. At first sight it looked an easy thing to to deal with, but proved very serious, difficult to remove, and was followed by severe shock, but the patient left us three weeks later very pleased with himself and seven pounds lighter. We had a few very big abdominal operations and quite a number of cancers of the breast: of those not one wss lost, for which we praise God. One man brought his wife and small boy to hospital. The mother and two children had been sleeping under a mosquito net which caught fire. One child was burned to death and the second scorched, but the poor mother was in a terrible condition. For weeks she had to be spoon-fed with fluids. She is now a regular church attender. Through this great calamity she had found her precious Saviour.”
Another year she wrote: “One of our Bible School students was telling me the other day that their very best reports are from the hospital. She said, “It’s strange that it is so hard to win people in their own homes.
Newchwang is a specially hard place, the hearts of the people are so hard, and yet in hospital we have some marvelous conversions.” I pointed out to her that I thought that was inevitable. In the homes the women were surrounded with work, children and all their worries, but in hospital they were free, they heard the Gospel message every day, and surely the lives of the young Christian nurses always before them should make a difference. Very few of our women patients can read Chinese writing, but they can read the lives of those around them. One young women from a Chinese home said “ It is only since I came into the hospital that I have really came to know Jesus” I am not saying this in praise of the hospital, but in praise of Him who is worikng oin our midst. It is not the little bit of seed that is sown here alone that counts, but each convert goes out in turn to sow and reap. The other day I was talking with a boy patient, I asked Him if he had heard of Christ before coming here ? Yes, he had: a young girl in her teens had been a patient here last year, was converted, and now away in her own village she goes around telling about Christ and how He had saved her from her sins.
One of the most difficult of Ruth’s tasks was the training of nurses. Just think what it means to have to begin from scratch with almost no idea of nursing as a vacation, let alone a Christian vacation, on the part of probationers, such as girls at home have. At first there were only men dispensers in the hospital. Soon Ruth started training them to be nurses as well, greatly to the comfort of the patients. The next step was the introduction of women nurses into what was still preponderately a men’s hospital. This was no easy matter when one realises how very recently Chinese women have been able to have careers at all. And for young unmarried girls to nurses new patients - would it be seemly ?
But although Newchwang was rather a conservative place and the more adventurous spirits among the Chinese high school girls preferred the bustling life of a ciry like Moukden and the modern hospital buildings and equipment there, Ruth set her heart on getting properly educated girls to train. Year by year her standard rose, and by 1935 she was preparing her students for the Manchurian Nurse’s Association certificate and later for the Manchurian government examinations, all of which they passed with credit to themselves and their teachers. If any of them were ill, Ruth nursed them herself, and like the Good Samaritan, often paid for their further care, as in the case of one of the sisters who developed lung trouble. Ruth took her up to the Moukden Hospital where she could get the special treatment she needed, and paid for her all the time she was there.
We get a glimpse into Ruth’s influence on her nurses and her concern for their spiritual welfare from something that happened in 1937. She wrote: “ Our night Sister was one of our first graduates, and has been with us for ten years. She works under a very great handicap -deafness - caused by neglected ear trouble in childhood, and apparently is allowing this to stand between her and God. She seldom goes to Church. She is very conscientious and kind to her patients. As she is inclined to be a spendrift, I keep back part of her salary every month. Two months ago she asked me to pay her in full that month, so I gave her the full amount. She promptly handed me back more than half for the hospital, and said she would do the same the following month,which she did. I asked her if she had given any to the Church, and she said no. I pointed out to her that we were part of the Church, and its support was our responsibility. Nothing would move her. She asked me not to tell Dr Hill anything about it, but to use it for meeting small needs to make life easier for someone. Here is a girl who is Christian in every action but who has placed a barrier where no barrier should be. I mention this as God may lay it on someone to remember her in prayer.
A highlight in the life of the hospital was the opening of the new Nurses’ Home, a building which Ruth herself had planned and for which she worked very hard. It was a comfortable little place.,able to take sixteen student nurses, four Sisters, and the Chineese lady doctor. In it was a prayer room, to which the nurses could retreat any time, and where once a week, a surge of prayer arose as all together and out loud the nurses prayed for their peresonal friends and for patients in whom they were specially interested.. The Heavenly Father heard and answered them; the reputation of the hospital for curing the incurable continued, and the wards were full.
Furthermore, to help her nurses spiritually, Ruth arranged a weekly bible-class for them, and twice a a year she used to invite a special evangelist to hold a week’s meetings for all the hospital staff, including the coolie’s, and any in-patients who cared to attend. Regular classes were suspended so that all could attend at some time or other, and they did.
Difficulties and problems abound in every msiionary’s life. Inevidably there are ups and downs, times of encouragement and times when things seem to be going back rather than forward, buth Ruth had learnt to “consume her own smoke”, so we hear little of that side. As doctors, foreign and Chinese, came and went, Ruth became more and more the permanent element in the Newchwang Hospital situation. One remembers her concern over the leak in the roof which defied all efforts at repair, yet how she hesitated to press for an entirely new and very expensive roof on an old and out-of-date building. But in all these cares and responsibilities one of the things that her colleagues remember about her with special gratitude is her friendship and her real Irish hospitality. Newchwang with its dreary mud flats is not a city to attract, outwardly, as, for example, Kirin, situated on the beautiful river Gangari and surrounded by hills, yet colleagues from Moukden and many another place, Scots as well as Irish, turned to the welcoming atmosphere of Ruth’s home when they were run down, or fed up, when their wardrobes needed replenishing ( for she knew a good Chinese tailor), or when they were merely in want of a few days of peace and refreshment. Her quiet compound and her cheerful friendly self drew her colleagues to that little haven of rest and peace. Her guest was often treated to breakfast in bed, but Ruth herself would be up and over in hospital by by 7.00am, even in the midst of a Manchurian winter, to get the night sister’s report as she went off duty. She thought nothing of stretching her house to accommodate six weary travellers on their way home from a summer holiday when they arrived in Newchwang after a very stormy passage, wet, seasick and misarable. Ruth hated the ugly black stoves with which, till quite recently most mission houses were heated in winter, and one of the pleasant memories of arriving at her house at Chinese New Year when it is bitterly cold, is the picture of the open grate with its lovely glowing fire, stacked high with a unique arrangement of coal balls, which greeted one in her living room, its warmth contrasting strongly, one found with the spartan temperature of her bedroom next door. On the wall of the sitting-room where people loved to drop in for a chat over a cup of coffee, was hung a card with these words:
‘All the world’s queer, save thee and me,
And even thee is a little queer,”
and her sense of humour and good common sense often helped to restore warped perspective. Reading was one of her recreations. She enjoyed a good novel as well as more serious books, and the Nursing Mirror, Children’s Newspaper and Manchester Guardian Weekly were to be found among other magazines in her sitting room, so though she lived alone, she was never lonely. Ruth loved flowers and got great pleasure out of her garden, although being low-lying, in a wet summer it suffered from flooding and sometimes in September nothing remained but a few heaps of rotting vegetation. In winter her house was gay with pot plants which she shared generously.
In spite of the restrictions and difficulties imposed on all forms of missionary work by the presence of the Japanese in Manchuria, Newchwang Hospital continued to make progress. A Chinese woman graduate, Dr. Yang was added to the staff in 1938 and as a result the woman’s side of the work improved and developed. By 1940 there were 2 Chinese doctors on the staff in addition to Dr. Hill, a hospital evangelist and a secretary to manage accounts and all dealings with the government. That year Dr Hill wrote in his report, “The nurses have not only proved themselves proficient in their profession, but have added to proficiency, patience, sympathy and love, showing the Christlike spirit in the carrying out of all their duties. This has been the result of the planning and guiding of Miss Dickson, whose valuable work is greatly appreciated by us all”. When one remembers that many of the girls who enter the Chinese hospitals to train as nurses are interested in nursing as a career rather than as a Christian vocation, and are not always specially suited by temperament for the work, the splendid results which Ruth obtained reflect the more credit on her. On graduation the great majority had at least a glimpse of what a Christian should be, and many were filled with a genuine love of Jesus Christ and a desire to spend their lives in following His example of love and service to the sick.
So keen was Ruth to do all in her power to maintain this high standard for her nurses that in both 1940 and 1941 she denied herself a summer hospital so that she might be constantly on the spot. In the summer of 1941, a number of Manchurian missionaries, acting on the advice of the British consul, were evacuated to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. With the war in its most critical stage at home and new recruits held up, this meant a very serious situation for our Mission hospitals in Manchuria, and Ruth was put in charge of the nursing staff in the Church of Scotland hospital in Liaoyang in addition to her responsibilities in Newchwang. That summer a further reduction in the number of missionaries on the field seemed desirable and Ruth was asked to ante-date.her furlough by two months. So in September, 1941, she with a number of others, set off most reluctantly for home. They had a very uncomfortable trip with an exceedingly severe typhoon added to the man-made trials, so that Ruth arrived in Singapore with her trunks smashed and everything in her cabin ruined. There she found that the chances of getting home were very slender, and seeing the need for army nurses, she at once offered for National Service, tired and ready for furlough though she was. She worked in a military hospital in Singapore for four months, and was in the last batch of military sisters to leave. Bombing was going on almost continuously, and Japanese planes soon set their ship on fire. Ruth got into a raft with some nurses and members of the R.A.F., and they were eventually washed upon an island as yet unoccupied by the Japanese, with very little water and no feedstuffs. Ruth as usual lived up to her motto of “ Others first,” and with a few other devoted nurses remained at work till all the patients were safe, and so forfeited her chance of escape. They were taken prisoner by the Japanese in April and moved from island to island till they reached Sumatra. At first Ruth worked with others in a Malay hospital, but later she and another nurse were made to work in the fields with the Dutch women. In this job as in all others she worked very conscientiously, doing even more than her share, and lost weight rapidly during the next six months. A time of even more trying experiences followed, and then she was removed to Palambong, where seven hundred women and children joined the group. Only a brave Christian soul could have stood up to these testing months as Ruth did.. In a letter which she managed to send to her brother were the words, “Psalm 23:1,” which show how her faith remained firm. With some fellow Christians she used to meet secretly in a dark little place in the camp for worship, and this little gathering meant a great deal to the small group of Christians in the camp.
In November, 1944, the camp was moved to Banka Island, which was so heavily infested with malaria thast about ninety per cent, of the prisoners became infected, Ruth among them. Repeated attacks of the fever, coupled with malnutrition, so weakened her that she died on Christmas Eve. A Scottish nurse was on duty that night and looked after her. Next morning this same nurse took charge of a little burial service, when a few friends laid Ruth’s tired body to rest, in a quiet open space outside the camp. A southern Irish girl made a cross of rough wood and burned on it Ruth’s name and the date of her death. And so the labours and sufferings of Ruth Hanna Dickson were over and she passed into the Father’s presence.
‘Well done, good and faithful servant ........ Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’.
T M Barker.
Perhaps the thing one noticed most in Ruth was humility. I do not think she was ever known to volunteer an opinion in commitees or councils. The opinion was there all right, usually pretty sound practical opinion, but it needed a direct question from the chair to extract it. Nor was that the only evidence of her humility. She was always genuinely surprised when she was chosen for any specific work for the Mission outside of her own hospital. She thought others had more qualifications, or more experience, or more ability in expressing their views.
There are usually two characteristics which usually accompany true humility: one is humour, of which she had her full share. She could enjoy a joke against herself more than most. She often told with real amusement the story of her attempt to circumvent the Japanese stringency of rations for the hospital. She managed, somehow or other, to lay in a store of millet, which she concealed in an empty room. Chinese friends had warned her that millet is not an easy grain to store, but the thought of having a hidden surplus for needy patients was more powerful than the warning. Imagine her chagrin when one morning she opened the door of the room to find the grain crawling, and the walls literally covered with what looked like tiny white caterpillars. She was not, however, going to give up her treasure. She got a number of old Chinese women at a modest wage who picked and cleaned every grain of the millet, and so succeeded after all in winning a battle of food.
The other characteristic much akin to humility is sympathy, which lies at the very basis of the choice of medical career. But the work of a nurse in a land like China - where heart-breaking suffering is so much in evidence, and where the mission hospital can only reach a fraction of the sufferers - almost demands a certain callousness in sheer self-defense. It is only the very rare spirits that can keep alive a constant tender sympathy with trouble of the body or mind. One had only to see her in the wards to realise that intimacy with suffering could never make her indifferent.
She was a loyal friend. Not blindly - for she had as keen an eye for faults as most - but with the clear clarity that sees through failures to the good that lies behind, and with something of the Master’s love that finds friends in the most unlikely folk. Very few of us had so many friends, in such varied walks of life, from Chinese peasants of the villages to wealthy members of the foreign community in Newchwang.
A medical missionary’s life is never an easy one. The tension between the practical and the ideal, the material needs and the spiritual message, is , always severe. Its is made more severe in a place like Newchwang, where both Chinese and foreigners are found among the patients, and where the claims of friendship are often in direct conflict with the needs of the work.
It is always a difficult or dangerous thing to speak even tentatively of the inner life of a much-loved colleague. One can at best give the evidence of the facts. In many visits to her hospital and her home that tension never once appeared. You had only to enter the porch at Newchwang Hospital to realise at once that here was a Christian hospital; when you saw the staff at work you knew there was a deep Christian influence permeating the institution; when you came into her home - where there was always a welcome - you were in the comforting presence of someone who faith was simple and profound, by whom the tensions of life and the complexities of living were brought into proper perspective in the constant atmosphere of reliance on Him who is the Great Healer; Who sends His friends to do almost impossible things, and whose promise never fails: “Lo I am with you all the days.”
In all but the latter 3 of her 21 years of service in Asia, Ruth Hannah Dickson was a missionary nurse, serving mostly as Matron in the Newchwang Hospital, Manchuria. However her career ended as it had began, in the service of her country at war. Towards the end of World War I she had nursed German prisoners of War and towards the end of World War II she nursed Japanese prisoners of war. She subsequently died as Sister Dickson, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, herself a prisoner of war.
Her body was later moved from its temporary grave outside the Japanese POW camp on Banka Island where she had died, to its final resting-place in a permanently maintained military cemetery in JAVA.
Ruth Hannah Dickson’s grave can be found in the Batavia (Metenpuloa) Military Cemetery, JAVA. - Plot 1, Row D, Grave No 14.
Newchwang or (Ying-k'ou)
Newchwang where Sister Ruth Dickson spent most of her missionary career in China is the conventional name for Pinyin YINGKOU, a city and port in Liaoning sheng (province), China. Ying-k'ou (Newchwang) is situated near the mouth of the Hun River, some 11 miles (18 km) from the mouth of the Liao River. Ying-k'ou began to develop as a river port in the second quarter of the 19th century, replacing Niu-chuang and T'ien-chuang-t'ai farther upstream. At first the new port was called Mo-kou-ying (Mo-kou Encampment) after the garrison of coastal defense troops that was quartered there, and the name was later changed to Ying-tzu-k'ou, or Ying-k'ou. Under the Treaty of Tientsin (1858), Niu-chuang was opened to foreign trade, but silt in the Liao River (connected upstream with the Hun River) made it unusable, and instead Ying-k'ou was used as the port from 1864 onward. Somewhat confusingly, Europeans referred to the port as Newchwang (Niu-chuang), the name of the original treaty port.
In the late 19th century Ying-k'ou grew into a major port and was the principal outlet for goods from Manchuria. It was essentially a cargo transshipment point between the small junks that used the Liao River and seagoing ships. It was not, however, a very satisfactory port, since it was constantly silting up and was also icebound for three months of the year. Its importance largely vanished in the first decade of the 20th century because of the construction of railways in Manchuria, which diverted most of Ying-k'ou's former trade to Lü-ta (Dairen). With the construction of its own rail link with the line from Lü-ta to Shen-yang (Mukden), Ying-k'ou later regained something of its old importance, exporting great quantities of soybeans and manufacturing bean cake and vegetable oil. The city had a large foreign, mainly Japanese, community.
Modern Ying-k'ou has developed into an important secondary industrial city, being mostly engaged in light industry. There are cotton mills, knitting factories, oil-extraction plants, canneries, food-processing plants, and paper mills. The area also has a fishing industry and some large salt pans. An engineering industry, specializing in machine-tool manufacture, has also grown up, and a large-scale oil refinery had been established. In 1985 Ying-k'ou was designated one of China's "open" cities as part of the new open-door policy of inviting foreign trade and investment. Pop. (1989 est.) 401,000.