American Mission Hospitals History
In 1895 Samuel Zwemer, one of the co-founders of the Reformed Church of America’s (RCA) Arabian Mission, stopped in Kuwait City on his way from Bahrain to Basrah. At the time, he noted that it was “the cleanest Arab town in the Gulf . . .”
That stop may have been the moment the RCA became interested in working in Kuwait. In his history of the Arabian Mission, Lewis R. Scudder III wrote that the organisation considered Kuwait “to be a very promising site for its work. It had two principle virtues. First, it was a relatively clean place . . . it was a healthy place. . By and large, it was a town that one could easily come to enjoy.” Kuwait’s second virtue, reported Scudder, “lay in the fact that it was a commercial hub with many routes of access into the interior deserts . . .”
Kuwait was a different place in 1909, when Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, the 6th Ruler of Kuwait (1896 – 1915) invited physicians from the Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church of America (RCA), already working in Basrah, to establish a hospital here. At the time, there were no hospitals and no western trained medical professionals in the country. Sheikh Mubarak prudently saw the advantages of setting up a hospital in Kuwait and was its greatest patron.
In 1913, after being asked to establish a permanent mission in Kuwait, the RCA began construction of the first medical facility in the country. Sheikh Mubarak donated an acre adjacent to the land the RCA had purchased, giving them adequate space for the desired buildings.
Initially there was some resistance in the local community, as the medical personnel were affiliated with a Christian church. However, Sheikh Mubarak tackled the situation head on. “. . . These men! Who are they? Are they diplomats? Are they politicians? Merchants? No!”, he’s quoted as saying. “These men have come here to teach us. They will build a hospital and take care of our sick. Everybody dies today but when these men come we shall have our sick attended to.”
Scudder reports that “[t]he initial reserve and parochialism of Kuwait society was something that gave way quickly . . . and was more than compensated for by the gracious – indeed, the proverbial – hospitality of the people, their generous friendship, and their effort to integrate the mission as fully as possible into their social structure.”
The Battle of Jahra, in 1920, proved to be as historic for the mission as it was for the country. 135 soldiers seriously wounded in the battle were brought to the hospital for care. Of those, only four died. In recognition of, and appreciation for, the hospital’s efforts, individuals in the community contributed to a fund to expand the facilities and services of the hospital.
Ultimately, the RCA built four hospitals: the original Men’s Hospital completed in 1914, the Women’s Dispensary in 1919, a full women’s hospital, officially named the Olcott Memorial Hospital, in 1939, and the Mylrea Memorial Hospital for men in 1955. The last two hospitals were built on land donated to the project by Sheik Salim al-Mubarak (Ruler of Kuwait 1917 – 1921), Abdulatif Eisa Abduljaleel, and Sheikh Ahmed al-Jaber (Ruler of Kuwait 1921 – 1950) and other Kuwaiti families.
The hospitals, commonly known as the American Mission Hospitals, are one of two remaining examples of Gulf Mission style architecture in the world. At a time when buildings were constructed from stone, wood and mud mortar, the buildings on the compound were made from steel and concrete.
Characterised by the extensive use of veranda for ventilation, aesthetics and socialisation, the hospitals were designed to replicate the fabric of family life in Kuwait. Patients and their families enjoyed the cooling breezes during the hot months and they took advantage of the ventilation to prepare meals in the hospital rooms and hallways. In the evenings, the verandas replaced courtyards as gathering places for families and friends.
But, of course, there were more important areas of the hospitals than the verandas. Being modern facilities, the hospitals included operating rooms, treatment rooms, a maternity ward, pharmacies, eye and paediatric care. According to records from the Women’s Hospital, in the first year alone (1939), there were 188 in-patients, including maternity cases, more than 30,000 clinical treatments, 3,015 vaccinations, 212 operations, and 347 house calls.
An increased demand for services inspired the AMH medical professionals to begin a training programme for local residents. Over the years Kuwaitis were trained as dressers, practical nurses, pharmacists, and X-ray technicians. Ultimately, one, Mr. Haider Al-Khalifa, was trained in management and was appointed hospital administrator.
The increase in demand also drove improvements in the facilities. A modern laboratory was added in 1941 and an X-ray machine was added two years later. In 1945, a full X-ray unit was added. Air conditioning was added to the operating rooms in 1952.
Finally, the demand was such that a new hospital facility was constructed. The Myrlea Memorial Hospital, commonly known as the Men’s Hospital, was built “largely through enthusiastic donations from the people of Kuwait.” The hospital was opened by H.H. the Amir, Sheikh Abdullah Salim in 1955.
However, as the AMH facilities and services grew, so did those provided by the government. The Amiri Hospital and the KOC Hospital in Maqwa opened in 1949. The three hospitals worked well together and the close cooperation between them is credited with advancing the development of healthcare in Kuwait.
By the 1960s, the government of Kuwait was providing sufficient medical services to meet the needs of the community. In 1967, the American Mission Hospitals in Kuwait were closed. During the years of operation, the hospitals helped established a positive relationship between the local community and the ‘foreigners’.
King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, after receiving treatment from the Mission, said “. . . The missionaries came with love and built schools and hospitals. They have built a bridge of friendship between our people and theirs.” The AMH buildings are a physical reminder of that friendship.