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Esther Morse papers

Identifier: Ax 860

Scope and Contents

The Esther Morse Papers offer a detailed picture of the experiences of a medical missionary woman whose life intersected with some of the most significant transitions in 20th century China, India, and Pakistan. This collection is remarkably comprehensive. It includes material that documents her 33-year career despite the fact that Morse spent two years as a prisoner of war, underwent repatriation, and subsequently lived under the new communist state established in China. For these reasons, the Morse Papers offer insights into political unrest, the acculturation of Americans (and lack thereof), as well as broader social, economic, and political transitions.

Esther Morse specialized in women's health and her first assignment was to a new hospital in Kacheck, Hainan. There, she cared for women and young children; especially expectant mothers and their newborn babies. Indeed, her letters are filled with descriptions of watching over ill children, encouraging first-time postpartum mothers, and determining what new illness afflicted local residents. These vignettes fill Morse letters to her family and friends, and the letters themselves constitute perhaps the greatest resource this collection offers. Ruth Morse Parkhurst, who donated parts of this collection in 1980, typed copies of Morse's letters, which amount to over 2000 pages and cover Morse's entire missionary career. (The original letters are also part of this collection.) These letters are invaluable because they connect to and contextualize other parts of the collection. In them, for example, Morse referred to photographs she took at the time. Morse also drew out highlights from her diaries; and she repeated portions of reports or other letters while adding new and more immediate information.

The earliest documents include papers and essays from Morse's undergraduate years as well as her student loans. Morse borrowed almost $2,000 from the Presbyterian Church to pay for her medical training and she repaid this dept through her service to the church as a medical missionary. These essays offer insights into Morse's background and training prior to her commitment to missionary work. Indeed, Morse's "western" medical training is evident in her letters and reports to family and administrators in the U.S. She described analyzing and testing samples taken from patients in order to identify their afflictions and innovate on how to treat them. She sent reports to the main hospital in Haihow (and beyond, such as the hospital in Canton). Morse expressed her faith in scientific methods and her goal to institute these techniques among the locally hired, Chinese medical staff. Moreover, Morse described the obstetrics classes that she offered new and expectant mothers, classes that presumably intended to teach Chinese mothers how to care for their babies using "western" methods and practices.

Morse's efforts to institute medical and mothering practices familiar to her are indicative of how her work differed from that of other missionaries. Rather than seeking religious converts, Morse proselytized scientific methods to people she viewed as uninitiated. In some of her earliest remarks on the Hainanese, she compared them to people from the Old Testament. She admitted her romantic expectations of the "Orient" were quickly dispelled by reality and the "dirt and smells" of daily life. Such impressions highlight the social (and cultural) differences separating Morse and other missionaries from the locals with whom and among whom they worked. For example, Morse expressed outrage over Hainanese attitudes towards girl infants. She discussed one case surrounding the adoption of a baby girl whose birth mother said she could only bring a boy baby home to her husband. Morse's viewpoint on these attitudes was perhaps informed by her involvement with the woman's movement and her participation in meetings of the International Women's Clubs (in Canton). Other attitudes were informed by cultural biases. It is unclear if Morse mastered Cantonese during her long missionary career. And, apparently, Morse rarely ate local food; she preferred instead to employ a Hainanese cook to prepare American dishes (and had to eat local foods in 1946 when she couldn't find a good cook). Morse comments on the cleanliness of locals, and she notes her fatigue with training the Chinese hospital staffs. These papers indicate that Morse never entirely abandoned notions of the foreignness or "Orientalism" of the Hainanese.

The Morse Papers are useful beyond both the day-to-day life of a medical missionary and the social transitions she experienced. Morse offered insights into the civil and political unrest that plagued Hainan from the 1920s to the 1940s. She opposed the communists and she noted attacks and battles involving the Kuo Min Tang (Guomindang) throughout the 1930s. Morse also offered detailed descriptions of the impact that the full-scale Japanese invasion had on missionaries and locals as well as her experiences as a prisoner of war and her exchange and repatriation in 1942. Once she returned to Hainan, Morse commented on the communist consolidation of political control in that region. Like other missionaries, Morse encountered opposition in the new communist government. (NOTE: Other American missionaries held by the Chinese government during the early communist period include John Hayes. Information about him is included in the collection of Barbara Hayes (A 296), also housed in Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries). In 1950, the Chinese government confined her to the Hainan hospital where she worked, and forced her to sever all communication with the outside. Finally, in 1953, the Chinese government released Morse. She returned to the U.S., sought a new assignment and set out for Pakistan in 1954.

Understandably, Morse's concern with political events stemmed from what impact they had on her life. Therefore, the Morse Papers are not detailed with regard to the major political figures of Hainan, Miraj (India), or Lahore (Pakistan). The collection is not as thorough for Morse's Indian and Pakistani eras. She spent little time in India while convalescing. Morse remained in Pakistan until 1963. She began work in Landour at Ferozepur Hospital where she continued to work in women's medicine, including gynecology and prenatal clinical work. Morse offered comments on and observations of Islam in Pakistan, yet, mostly, her letters are filled with descriptions of travel, daily life (like shopping), and stories about other missionaries. Morse retired from missionary work in 1963.

Other material relating to the life of Esther Morse can be found in the Ruth Morse Parkhurst Papers, Coll 228, in Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon.


  • Creation: 1921-1976


Conditions Governing Access note

Collection is open to the public. Collection must be used in Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room. Collection or parts of collection may be stored offsite. Please contact Special Collections and University Archives in advance of your visit to allow for transportation time.

Conditions Governing Use

Property rights reside with Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries. Copyright resides with the creators of the documents or their heirs. All requests for permission to publish collection materials must be submitted to Special Collections and University Archives. The reader must also obtain permission of the copyright holder.

Biographical / Historical

Born in Dustin, Nebraska, 1898, Esther Malinda Morse was a physician and spent a lifetime serving the Presbyterian Church as a missionary doctor in China, India, and Pakistan. Morse attended Hastings College and the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. She obtained her medical degree in 1930 and entered the Presbyterian Missionary Society. She arrived in Kachek on Hainan Island (off the southern coast of China) in the fall of 1930. She learned Cantonese and spent much of the next twelve years on the island. Morse had specialized in obstetrics in medical school. Consequently, most of her patients were women and young children, in particular, expectant mothers and their newborns. Morse's papers indicate that the majority of her work was medical rather than evangelical.

In December 1940, the Japanese Army placed Morse, along with other American missionaries in Hainan, under arrest as prisoners of war. In her letters, Morse recounts this experience as well as her exchange and repatriation in 1942.(NOTE: She was pictured with 47 other persons in Life Magazine of May 19, 1942, who were believed to be among the 200 Americans held captive). Morse did not stay long in the United States. By 1944, after touring the U.S. raising support for overseas missionaries, Morse again set out to return to China. She suffered health problems and spent much of 1944 convalescing in Miraj hospital in Calcutta, India. The Presbytery assigned her to stay in India until January of 1946 when she returned to China. Initially, she worked in Canton (Guangzhou) before finally returning to Hoihow (Haikou) on Hainan Island.

After spending almost three years confined to her hospital by the communist government, Morse left China in 1953 and obtained a new assignment that sent her to Lahore in western Pakistan. She remained there until 1963 when she retired from missionary work and returned to the United States. She lived in Washington State until her death in 1975.


16 linear feet (45 containers)

Language of Materials



Esther Morse (1898-1975) was a medical missionary in China and Pakistan. The collection contains correspondence, diaries, speeches, biographical information, scrapbooks, and photographs that offer a detailed picture of the experiences of a medical missionary woman whose life intersected with some of the most significant transitions in 20th century China and Pakistan.


Collection is organized into the following series:

Series I: Correspondence; Subseries A: Outgoing Original Letters and Outgoing Typed Letters; Subseries B: Incoming Letters

Series II: Diaries

Series III: Speeches and Publications; Subseries A: Speeches; Subseries B: Publications

Series IV: Biographical and Personal Materials

Series V: Scrapbook and Photograph Albums

Series VI: Photographs; Subseries A: Prints; Subseries B: Negatives

Series VII: Miscellaneous

Series VIII: Oversize

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Esther Morse, donated between 1970 and 1975, and of Ruth Morse Parkhurst, in 1980.

Existence and Location of Copies

Partially available in microfilm as part of: Women's lives. Series 3, American women missionaries and pioneers collection (MICROFILM BV3703 .W66 2006, reel 26-48); Primary Source Microfilm, 12 Lunar Dr., Woodbridge, Conn. 06525.

Guide to the Esther Morse Papers
Complete Description
Finding aid prepared by Laci Day, David Young, Richelle Riddle, Veta Schlimgen, and Paz Mendez, Manuscripts Processors
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is in English.
Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Oregon Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives Repository

1299 University of Oregon
Eugene OR 97403-1299 USA