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The Corts: Crossroads of a Changing World

April 22, 2021
The author, James Sintumat, in Thailand.

--by James Jullapong Sintumat

Working or growing up in the world of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT), it is inevitable that at some point one will hear about missionaries. McGilvary, Bradley, Briggs, and McKean all ring a bell, but most people are unfamiliar with the names of Cort, O’Brien, Gillies, etc. I myself had never heard of “Doctor Cort'' until I began working at the Doctor Prince Museum at McCormick Hospital, Chiang Mai. The opportunity to read his and his wife's biographies, reports, and personal letters exposed me to the wealth of knowledge of the lives of the Corts, and opened my eyes to their contributions and importance. If McCormick was not named after the original donor Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, but was named after the pioneer missionaries who established the institution, in the vein of McGilvary Theological Seminary and McKean Leper Asylum, then I am sure that the hospital would certainly be named “Cort Hospital.” Despite their work in establishing one of the most important Protestant medical institutions in the country, few people realize or recognize their achievements. I hope this essay will shed a light on these two great missionaries.

Mabel Gilson, originally a high school teacher from Illinois, arrived as a missionary under the American Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in Bangkok in 1904.[1] Four years later, in 1908, Edwin Charles Cort, a medical graduate from Johns Hopkins University, came to Siam under the Board of Foreign Missions as a missionary.[2] Neither originally wanted to come to Siam. Mabel Gilson originally wanted to go to Japan,[3] and Dr. Cort wanted to teach medicine at Peking. But God works in mysterious ways, and both were assigned to Thailand. In 1910, they met as they were both stationed in Lampang, and soon married.[4] In 1915, the Corts were assigned to the Chiang Mai Hospital, and later McCormick Hospital,[2] and continued working there until World War II. As Japan invaded, they gave up McCormick Hospital to the Thai government and fled to India before finally returning to America.[5][6] After the war, they returned and Dr. Cort worked with the Ministry of Public Health to distribute anti-malarial medicine that had gone into shortage during the war.[7] He retired in 1949 and returned to America. Dr. Cort died in 1950, age 70.[5] Mabel Cort died in 1955, age 83.[6]

Edwin Charles Cort, M.D. [ds6474]

The Corts are not old enough to be part of the pioneer missionary generation, but they are too old to be in anyone’s living memory. They inhabit a “middle period,” a transition between the Victorian world of the McGilvaries and the modern missionaries and national church of today. The Corts are a perfect example of missionaries during this period: caught in the crossroads of a changing world, surrounded by change, both of the world around them and of the relationship between missionaries and the communities they serve.

One cannot underestimate the tumultuous nature of the changing world of anyone living in the first half of the 20th century. It was a time of rapid technological, economic, social, and political change in the West, and Siam, taking its cues from the West, followed suit. Whereas the Chiang Mai that Rev. McGilvary came to in 1863 looked arguably very similar to the Chiang Mai in which he died in 1911, Siam in 1908 was almost unrecognizable from Siam in 1949. Dr. Cort came to Chiang Mai on an elephant and left on an airplane. During the time they worked here, the Corts witnessed the fruition of King Chulalongkorn’s reforms as the train, roads, postage, telegraph, and telephone eventually came to Chiang Mai. The boat gave way to the train and the horse gave way to the automobile. In many aspects, these technological advancements made missionary work considerably easier. In the early days of the hospital, logistics and transportation were very limited. Dr. McKean, who started working at the American Presbyterian hospital in 1888 before founding the Leper Asylum, imported a tablet press from America so that the hospital could make its own medicine.[4] By the late 1920s, medicine could be easily ordered from Bangkok to arrive by train the next day,[9] and in the early 1930s an emergency X-ray machine was even flown in from Batavia, present day Jakarta.[4]

The Corts are a perfect example of missionaries during this period: caught in the crossroads of a changing world, surrounded by change, both of the world around them and of the relationship between missionaries and the communities they serve.

In the domestic sphere, improved technologies in transportation and infrastructure made importing foods easier and more widespread. Mabel Cort recalls in a letter to her family, dated August 31, 1929, “I do not know whoever may blow on me for a meal. But it does not matter so much now for we can get things in the market to help out. Just step to the telephone and give your order and in fifteen or twenty minutes it is here. Somewhat different from twenty five years ago when you sent an order to the outside country once a year and it took at least eight months to get here and maybe a year and sometimes it was spoiled.”[9] By 1929, foods that once took a transoceanic journey to arrive could be easily found in the market.

Along with technological developments, missionaries like the Corts also witnessed the change of Thai society. Even though the pioneer missionaries had already established a presence, when the Corts first came they were confronted with traditional Thai beliefs and practices that still prevailed and often contradicted their goals. Dr. Cort writes of an early experience when he went into a village in Lampang. Although the people were clearly sick, they refused treatment with the belief that their sickness was a punishment by spirits for some grievance, and defying their punishment would only therefore incur more wrath.[4] In another instance, Dr. Cort was confronted with the practice of “baking” a mother by the fire after giving birth to shrink her uterus. Upon seeing that the mother was clearly suffering, Dr. Cort deftly pointed out that the family buffalo had also given birth, but was not baked by the fire as well.[4] Mabel Cort also had her experience navigating traditional beliefs. While most Thai had come to see the value of sending boys to school, educating girls was still seen as pointless, and as head of the Girls’ School, Mabel Cort spent her vacations going to villages encouraging people to send their daughters to school.[4] Since Dr. Cort started working, it would take over a decade for the hospital to have its first trained Thai nurses,[4][6][10] but eventually these barriers would be broken down.

Despite these technological and social developments, missionaries still faced many hardships and obstacles. Even with new technologies like the automobile, roads and infrastructure were still slow to develop, and Dr. Cort still often had to hike to reach patients. Some obstacles even arose because of developing technology. As producing medicine became easier, counterfeit drugs became a widespread problem. Following Dr. McKean’s successful smallpox vaccination campaign in Chiang Mai, Dr. Cort sought to recreate the success in Prae around 1913. He writes of entering a village only to have the people refuse smallpox vaccination. Earlier, two men who had learned vaccination techniques from Dr. McKean took advantage of the villagers by giving them a substitute of sweetened condensed milk. A group of villagers developed smallpox, and as a result were wholly untrusting of vaccination. It was only when a Christian Thai woman convinced them by pointing out the missionaries’ strict sanitation that they accepted the vaccine.[4]

“We’ll manage. Missionaries always manage. They have to. Don’t you know there’s work to do?”

Vaccines were not the only target of counterfeit. As technology in transportation improved, more Thai people began using canned and tinned milk. This became a problem in the 1920s, as counterfeit skim milk was causing widespread xerophthalmia in infants due to vitamin A deficiency.[4] Dr. Cort devised a creative method to bring the issue up to King Prajadiphok upon his royal visit to McCormick Hospital in 1927. Two babies stood outside the hospital door as the royal procession passed; one was fed counterfeit milk and physically weak, the other was fed good milk and healthy, saluting the King, much to His Majesty’s pleasure.[11][12] A short while later, a royal decree on skim milk was passed.[13] Thus, new technologies did not necessarily mean the work became easier, but that it also presented new challenges that the missionaries addressed.

And then there were the eternal struggles of being a missionary in a foreign field. There was homesickness and loneliness from being far away from home and stationed far apart from other missionaries. Limited staff often meant that missionaries were over-exhausted from working multiple jobs. During his early tenure in Chiang Mai, Dr. Cort was himself in charge of an entire hospital without nurses and additionally the treasurer of the Mission Station, work that he could only do when he had time away from the hospital, usually after midnight.[2][4] Missionaries often suffered from health problems from the unforgiving climate; Dengue, malaria, typhoid, gastritis, and infections were common diseases for foreigners living in Siam. Missionaries like the Corts took emergency health breaks almost biannually to cooler countries like China or Japan.[1][2] In the worst case, missionaries who were in the most severe conditions were sent back home to recuperate.[9]

There were also concerns of finance and budgeting. Dr. Cort writes of going into debt trying to keep the hospital at Prae, one of the Mission’s poorest stations, afloat, and eventually having to sell off all their furniture to clear the debt.[4][11] Furthermore, there were unpredictable events that seemed nothing short of cruel twists of fate. On the Corts’ honeymoon in 1911, Mabel Cort fell ill with dengue fever, and while they were away the bungalow that Dr. Cort built for her burned to the ground, along with Dr. Cort’s meticulous collection of pathological slides from Johns Hopkins. Yet, Mabel Cort’s response perfectly encapsulates the mentality that they had to adopt: “We’ll manage. Missionaries always manage. They have to. Don’t you know there’s work to do?”[4] Missionaries like the Corts lived a life of uncertainty and instability, and their ability to adapt helped them face the tempest of an ever-changing world head-on, especially in the first half of the 20th century. These changes included both developments such as in communications and logistics that made their work easier, as well as new obstacles and problems from new technologies that they were able to successfully address and overcome.

Dr. Cort examining patient. [ds6476]

Missionaries like the Corts also witnessed and were part of a changing relationship between missionaries and the Thai people. In many ways, the Corts and the missionaries of their time, this “middle period,” still continued the relationship and practices established by the pioneer missionaries. As people were still scared of the hospital, doctors often went out to patients, “making calls.” Dr. Cort also continued Dr. McKean’s practice of hiking to faraway villages. The hospital’s policy was to never refuse a call, no matter how hopeless, and, as it turned out, he was able to save many people who initially seemed beyond help.[4]

Successful missionaries needed range and adaptability in a foreign field. While at McCormick Hospital, Dr. Cort published research on diseases such as amoebic dysentery in the Journal of the American Medical Association.[14] At the same time, he was going out to villages giving demonstrations on local diseases like beri-beri.[6] Mabel Cort was simultaneously the mistress of the household receiving guests, the principal at the Girls’ School, Dr. Cort’s surgical assistant when there were no nurses,[4] and after finishing a course from Johns Hopkins, became the dietician at McCormick and one of the first dieticians in Thailand.[8] This range also extended to the type of people the missionaries consorted with. As an example, on one end, Dr. Cort writes of rescuing a beggar who he found unconscious on the hospital steps. After treating the man, he later discovered that the patient used to be a famously prodigious student of Buddhism in the North. Touched by Dr. Cort’s kindness, the man converted to Christianity and became an assistant to the missionaries, helping evangelize to other hospital patients.[4] On the other end, missionaries continued the fruitful relationship with royalty that was established by pioneer missionaries like Bradley. As part of an elite group of foreigners in the Orient, missionaries of this period were often received and entertained by royalty and nobility, who were also educated in the West. In her letters Mabel Cort often wrote of dining at the palace of Prince Tossirivong, Thesaphiban of Monthon Payap.[9] Officially, since opening in 1925, McCormick Hospital received visits from royalty such as King Prajadhipok and his Queen in 1927,[10] and Queen Savang Vadhana in 1928.[15]

King Prajadhipok’s Visit in 1927. [ds6490]

The relationship with royalty culminated in the internship of Prince Mahidol, the Prince Father, who worked as an assistant physician under Dr. Cort at McCormick Hospital in April and May 1929.[9][16] Additionally, the Corts were also close with the local nobility of Chiang Mai and the North. Gone were the days of the McGilvaries living in fear of the wrath of Kawilorot. By the time of the Corts, the local nobility had grown most welcome to foreign presence. Dr. Cort writes of trading his horse that Chao Kaew Nawarat admired, with the prince’s Ford Model T, which served as the hospital’s first proto-ambulance.[4] Mabel Cort taught English to a young prince of the ruling family of Lampang,[4] and another missionary family, the Ensigns, taught English to Prince Tossurivong’s daughter, Princess Wan-a-weo.[9] The Corts also had a close relationship with Princess Dara Rasmi, Princess of Chiang Mai and consort of King Chulalongkorn. In her later years, Dr. Cort treated her tuberculosis, and recalled riding 10 miles three times a day to her palace to hand-feed the temperamental princess. When her disease worsened, he later had to operate on her lung and successfully guessed the correct lung to remove without an X-ray machine.[4]

H.R.H. Prince Mahidol of Songkla. [ds6491]

Concurrently, the Corts came at a time that Siam and the Siamese were becoming more independent, and the missionaries helped this transition as well. Dr. Cort had the goal of making McCormick Hospital “self-sustaining” and was very proud when they achieved success. An annual report of the hospital in 1927-28 states, “This is a ‘self-supporting’ mission hospital. That means that aside from the salaries of the American staff and some supplies sent by guild societies, the running expenses of the hospital are met by its receipts in Siam, from the fees of patients and the sale of drugs. There is no subsidy, whether from America or Siam, and no endowment...Thus a total of 289 out of 747 patients treated during the year received entire or partial free treatment. Out of 14,668 days of treatment given by the hospital 5,869 or 40 per cent were not paid for at all by the patient. Nevertheless, by careful watching of corners, the year was closed out of debt.”[17] Such an extraordinary feat was still almost unheard of in America. The missionaries no doubt sought to maintain this successful self-sustainability not only while they were working, but also when they left. While the pioneers established institutions like Prince Royal’s College and Dara Academy, the middle period missionaries focused on “training people” to take the helm after they left. As there were no nurses in the early days, Dr. Cort instead trained “assistants,” young men who learned the basics of sanitation and medicine to help with operations.[4] Two of these assistants included Chinda Singhanetra and Boonchom Arivong, who would later become directors of McCormick Hospital. Still motivated by his passion to teach, Dr. Cort opened the Chiang Mai Medical School in 1915.[2][4][5] Even though it closed in 1919 due to lack of funding[2] and inability to compete with the medical school in Bangkok,[4] it still produced a successful class of doctors, including Dr. Chinda. Finally, McCormick Hospital opened the Nurses’ Training School in 1924,[4][5] which still exists today as the Faculty of Nursing of Payap University. Outside of the hospital, Mabel Cort’s students became the first girls from the North to enter the higher grade levels of Edna Cole’s school in Bangkok, Watthana Wanglang.[4]

The Corts upon retirement in 1949. [ds6478]

For me, hearing the word “missionary” conjures up images of the past, similar to connotations of the word “emperor” or “empire.” While there are still emperors today, most people understand that the age of empire is over. In the same sense, the age of missionaries is over. The Siam they came to no longer exists, and neither does the society that they came from, nor the Board of Foreign Missions or even the American Presbyterian Church that sent them. But missionaries were never supposed to be an institution that lasted forever. Everyone who came here understood that the term was temporary, and that understanding influenced the work they did. Unlike other European or Western powers, their interests were not inherently exploitative or imperialistic. They helped people without creating a system of unfair dependence. This was achieved by simultaneously training people, as the missionaries worked towards a self-sustainability that would last even when they left. All the while, they gracefully navigated a changing world in which developing technology and culture both facilitated and hindered their work, and experienced a changing relationship between missionaries and local people as the Thai became more autonomous. Ultimately, the Corts lived to see the culmination of their work with the creation of the unified independent national Church of Christ in Thailand in 1934. And then they left. This is the beauty and simplicity of the American missionary.

--James Jullapong Sintumat is an intern at the Doctor Prince Museum Project, McCormick Hospital, and a student at the International College at Thammasat University in Bangkok. His research has been published in the Church of Christ in Thailand magazine.


1. Cort, Mabel. Letters to Family, 1929. Cort Papers. Payap University Archives
2. Cort, Edwin Charles. Yankee Thai. manuscript. From Presbyterian Historical Society
3. Application of Mabel Gilson. 8 Sep. 1903. From Presbyterian Historical Society
4. Cort, Edwin Charles. Yankee Thai. manuscript. From Presbyterian Historical Society
5. Culver, Elsie Thomas. Edwin Charles Cort obituary. Jan. 1950. From Presbyterian Historical Society
6. Sinhanetre, Chinda. Portrait of the Founder. Obituary. From Presbyterian Historical Society
7. Cort, Edwin Charles. Letter to Friends, April 20, 1946. From Presbyterian Historical Society
8. Carruthers, Jeanne. Mrs. Edwin Charles Cort obituary. 16 Mar. 1955. From Presbyterian Historical Society
9. Cort, Mabel. Letters to Family, 1929. Cort Papers. Payap University Archives
10. Report of McCormick Hospital For the Year 1926-27. American Presbyterian Mission. Chiengmai, Siam. From Wellcome Library
11. Schreiner, S.A., Jr. My Uncle Charlie Angel Doctor of Siam. 1985
12. O’Brien, Henry R. Fifty Years in Public Health. circa 1967. From Payap University Archives
13. Royal Decree on Whey. 25 February 1927; พระราชบัญญัติหางนํา้ นม (เลม ราชกิจจานุ เบกษา วันท่ี ๒๕ กุมภาพั นธ์ ๒๔๗๐)
๔๔ หน้า ๓๒๗
14. Barnes, Milford Edwin and Cort, Edwin Charles. 1918. “Oil of Chenopodium in the Treatment of Amoebic Dysentery.” Journal of the American Medical Association 71. no. 5
15. Report of McCormick Hospital For the Year 1928-29. American Presbyterian Mission. Chiengmai, Siam. From Wellcome Library
16. Report of McCormick Hospital For the Year 1929-30. American Presbyterian Mission. Chiengmai, Siam. From Wellcome Library
17. Report of McCormick Hospital For the Year 1927-28. American Presbyterian Mission. Chiengmai, Siam. From Wellcome Library