Today’s edition of NtHWS Extras brings us the amazing tale of Dr. Gordon S. Seagrave, arguably one of the most selfless and impressive American expatriates of the 20th century. There is nary a peep about Seagrave in Now the Hell Will Start, primarily because he’s not the sort of bloke you can just casually mention without giving some backstory; if we’d brought up his saintly endeavors, we would have been compelled to spend pages on the topic. So the good doctor fell by the wayside—until now.
The son of Baptist missionaries, Seagrave spent 44 years tending to the medical needs of Burma’s hill tribes. Time caught up with the doctor in 1961, just four years before his death:
Seagrave’s main hospital building is a substantial stone structure which he helped build with his bare hands to show native laborers that Americans do not consider manual work demeaning. The other buildings are of flimsier native construction. Thanks mainly to a U.S. support group, American Medical Center for Burma, Inc., which raises funds, and to drug manufacturers who donate supplies, Dr. Seagrave is able to practice and supervise good medical care for a population of border tribesmen totaling some 400,000. He fills 250 beds and 50 mats with about 2,500 admissions a year for surgery and an equal number for medical treatment, plus 10,000 out patient visits. He also runs one of the best Western-style nursing schools of any of the underdeveloped countries.
The Burma surgeon does all this on less than a shoestring, but then he always has.
He got started with a wastebasketful of broken surgical instruments that he salvaged from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The hospital’s yearly budget is $75,000— a third of what Seagrave needs. He takes only $90 a month as salary and pays for his own food out of it.
Dr. Seagrave, who no longer visits the U.S., vows to die in Burma. He tires easily; he has heart trouble—despite which he is a chain smoker.
During World War II, Seagrave was forced to flee the Japanese invasion of Burma. He joined Lieut. Gen. Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in his famous march out of Burma, along with 19 of his nurses. Five years after the end of the war, he was prosecuted for treason by the newly independent Burmese government; the main charge was that he aided Karen rebels, who continue to fight to this day. Seagrave got off thanks to international pressure, and spent the next 15 years back at his hospital in Namkhan. Per his wishes, he died there in 1965.
Seagrave is such a towering figure due to his utter indifference to his own happiness. Despite his missonary roots, he was no Baptist proselytizer; rather, his passion was tackling the challenge of making something out of a nothing, again and again and again. And in the poverty-stricken wilds of Burma, where the monsoons exact an awful annual toll, the cycle of reinvention is perhaps the only constant.
More on Seagrave’s wartime work here. Seagrave’s own book, Burma Surgeon, has long been out of print, but is a staple of dusty university libraries. Microkhan may just have to dig up a copy at his current Columbia Library headquarters.