Benjamin Hobson (1816-1873)

Benjamin Hobson was born on 2 January 1816 at Welford, Northamptonshire, the son of an Independent minister. He began his medical studies as an apprentice at Birmingham General Hospital, and, in 1835 transferred to University College London, gaining the M.B. degree of the University of London, and Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons. Prompted by a desire to use his medical knowledge in the service of Christianity, Hobson was appointed as a medical missionary for the London Missionary Society. In 1839 he left for China. On his return to England in 1859 he practised medicine in Clifton and Cheltenham, until retiring in 1864. Dr Hobson died at Forest Hill, Sydenham on 16 February 1873. He was married twice: firstly in 1839 to Jane Abbay until her death in 1845, and secondly in 1847 to Mary Rebecca Morrison, daughter of the Revd. Robert Morrison. He had two children by his first wife and two by his second. Dr Hobson is significant for being the first British protestant medical missionary to work in China. In general the work of the pioneer missionaries, including that of the Revd. Robert Morrison, had focused on the study of the language, the production of Christian literature and on the creation of openings into Chinese society. For Dr Hobson the role of such a missionary was both philanthropic and evangelistic: priority was given to meeting the medical needs of the native people in the belief that this would gain their confidence. His work in China was therefore devoted to the development of medical facilities in Macao, Hong Kong and Canton, the introduction of Western medical techniques, the preparation of texts in Chinese dealing with western medicine, and the provision of medical education in order to train native physicians. Arriving in China in 1839, Hobson’s first post was with William Lockhart at the hospital recently established by the Medical Missionary Society in Macao. Hobson’s medical observations at this time cover the famine, small pox, cholera, leprosy and, in particular, the problems of opium addiction. His concern with the harmful effects of the opium trade led him to voice openly his opposition to the attitude of the English government. In 1843 Benjamin Hobson moved to Hong Kong to take charge of the Missionary hospital newly founded by Peter Parker. As in Macao, the hospital was in great demand, with the treatment of ophthalmic conditions being the most common need. In the more tolerant atmosphere of Hong Kong, Hobson’s commitment to the need for medical education of the native Chinese became apparent: firstly in his support for the China Medical and Chirurgical Society, founded in 1845; secondly in the training given to ‘pupil assistants’; and thirdly in proposals to the Committee of the Medical Missionary Society for the establishing of ‘medical classes’. However, a conflict of approaches to the role of the missionary and to the strategy of the Medical Missionary Society led to the creation of two separate associations, the Hong Kong Missionary Society (1845), supported by Dr Hobson, and the Medical Missionary Society in Canton supported by Peter Parker. In 1847 Hobson moved to Canton to continue the work which had been neglected since the death in 1834 of his father-in-law, the Revd. Robert Morrison. Although Christianity was increasingly tolerated in China, the native city of Canton remained closed to Westerners, and Hobson had to establish his hospital in the Kam-Li-Fau district, in the Western suburbs. Hobson’s medical observations continued, and show a continuing concern for leprosy and the problems of opium addiction. Similarly his awareness of the need for medical education is reflected in the importance of training given to pupil assistants, most of whom were subsequently considered competent to undertake small operations. In 1856, in the face of the Second Anglo-Chinese War, the Kam-Li-Fau hospital was closed. Dr Hobson transferred first to Hong Kong and then in 1857 to Shanghai, before returning to England in 1859. The eight years spent in Canton were perhaps the most significant in terms of Dr Hobson’s contribution to the acceptance of Western medical practice, and enabled the publication in Chinese of major works bringing together selections from key English works on specific medical subjects. These works became standard medical texts for the Chinese and were translated into various languages including Korean and Japanese.

Hobson B. The history and present state of medicine in China. Medical times and Gazette. 1860; nov 18:634. 1861; jan 12:33-35.

Benjamin Hobson. Br Med J. 1873;1(639):355–356.


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