American Mission Hospital: Pioneers in Healthcare

by BTM

Mon, 03 July 2023

American Mission Hospital: Pioneers in Healthcare

His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, addressing Bahrain’s American expatriate community in April 2018, said: “Over a century ago, an intrepid young American named Samuel Zwemer travelled from New Jersey to Arabia with a noble mission in his heart. The medical dispensary he opened in Manama became a hospital that has saved countless lives.

“This hospital is a testament to the American generosity of spirit – and a reminder of what we have in common. Here, in Bahrain, we have a hospital founded by a Christian mission, alongside mosques and churches, synagogues and temples. 

“In the USA, people of all faiths come to live the American Dream. We may be different nations, but we are united by this proud tradition of tolerance. Together, we share the dream of a world where we can all live alongside each other in peace and prosperity.”

These words of HM King Hamad, on Samuel Zwemer, the founder of American Mission Hospital, are indicative of the early US relations with Bahrain, which have only grown from strength to strength over the decades. 

After arriving in Bahrain on December 7, 1892, Samuel Zwemer set up a dispensary to which people came for medicines, medical treatments, and minor surgeries. His clinic was located in the souq near the renowned Bab Al Bahrain area. The Bab Al Bahrain arch itself, however, was not built until almost 60 years later, in 1949.

In 1896, on a visit to Baghdad, Zwemer met Amy Wilkes, an Australian missionary nurse at a hospital. The fact that she was a registered nurse trained in Sydney and serving in Mesopotamia, must have made him consider her as an ideal companion for life. So, they married at the British Consulate there.

Once back in Bahrain, the couple ran the medical dispensary and conducted minor surgeries. But they kept writing to the ‘Arabian Mission’, headquartered in New York, that Bahrain needed a full-fledged hospital.

So, in 1900, with the coming of a doctor-couple Dr. Sharon J Thoms and Dr. Marion Wells Thoms, who were medical graduates from Michigan State University, and now Bahrain’s first modern physicians, the formal healthcare movement in Bahrain started.

Thanks to the permission of the then Hakim of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, a piece of land was purchased in Manama, and the Mason Memorial Hospital was built and opened on January 26, 1903. Over time, however, it became known as the American Mission Hospital.

Soon, Zwemer’s persuasive skills, through his prolific writing  and through his preaching, which he did during his US tours in early 1900s, motivated many doctors, nurses, paramedics and teachers to join the mission. 

Both Dr. Sharon J Thoms and Dr. Stanley Mylrea, who served in Bahrain in 1910s, went on to set up the American Mission Hospitals in Muscat and Kuwait respectively. Dr. Paul Harrison and Dr. Louis P Dame used to visit Riyadh, to treat the family of Ibn Saud – who later became the first king of Saudi Arabia – and thousands of patients in Nejd, Arabia. 

Dr. Harold Storm used to visit Qatar and the Trucial States (which became UAE, later) to serve the people in those regions.

Until after the oil boom in 1940s, when the local governments were able to set up government healthcare facilities, it was, in fact, the American Mission Hospitals that offered modern healthcare.

On 26 January 2023, exactly 120 years after the first hospital in the region opened, the new King Hamad American Mission Hospital opened in Bahrain, making it the fifth and the largest of the facilities of the American Mission Hospital in Bahrain. 

Modern healthcare, of over 130 years, is but just one of the many sectors which bring the two nations, US and Bahrain, together.