A Columbus Physician in Diplomatic Court
Susan Holman, PhD, John R. Eckrich Chair and Professor of Religion and the Healing Arts, Valparaiso University
Global and public health often valorizes the American doctor abroad while demonizing her or his missionary compatriots. This paper visits a little-known story from Columbus history that shows the complex nuances which more often reflect the human tensions at play in such relationships. William Trevitt, M.D. (1818-1881), was a Columbus physician and two-term Ohio Secretary of State (1840-41, 1853-56) appointed in 1858 as U.S. Ambassador to Chile. Soon after sailing around Cape Horn to the Valparaiso embassy and its U.S. government-funded American Hospital, Trevitt’s politics and health care administration quickly caused havoc in the local expat community. In Columbus he had been a popular doctor known for his public health efforts with cholera victims, research on mineral springs, and his zeal to improve medical education through the Ohio State Medical Society and Columbus’s nascent Starling Medical College (later to become the OSU School of Medicine). This zeal continued apace in Chile, where he offended the local missionary chaplain, the Rev. Dr. David Trumbull, fired the hospital’s long-time medical director (who had delivered all of Trumbull’s children), and replaced him with Trevitt’s own medical-student nephew (who frankly preferred photography to health care). The American Hospital experience went from bad to worse in short order, and expenses soared. The crisis imploded during Chile’s revolution in March 1859, when Trevitt and his wife flamboyantly defended rebels who had taken sanctuary in the embassy hospital against government-ordered armed soldiers. When negotiations failed and the rebels were hunted down, the Ambassador vacated the premises and wrote a letter to Washington; next day, the Chilean government cancelled his appointment. Outraged, the Trevitts continued to control the (relocated) hospital for a year before leaving the country, while back home the news of their drama on the embassy steps became legend. Sources suggest widespread relief in Valparaiso when the hospital was restored to its former director. Meanwhile, Trumbull quietly penned his own version of events in his diary, as he and his family devoted their lives to serve Protestants and Catholics in South America, including sailors and travelers who fell sick en route to Panama and the California gold fields. Back in Columbus Trevitt, perhaps wounded in the fray, dabbled in medical consults and focused his energies on newspaper publishing, going bankrupt soon before his death in 1881. His nephew, medical degree in hand, moved to New Hampshire, where he served the rural American poor in a small-town pharmacy. The story of these intersecting ventures of mission work with economic and medical diplomacy may illustrate David Hollinger’s thesis (Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America), that “service” efforts tend to significantly reorient how the traveler engages with the world at home more than any cross-national effect she or he may have on global religion and health. While I have published the broad details of this story in a recent book chapter, this presentation is a new retelling, with photos and details not yet in print.