What would you expect from a baby whose father abandoned her at birth, and whose mother died when she was three? Taken in by impoverished neighbors, Eleanor Chestnut was an unhappy child, lonely and hungry for a mother’s love. She didn’t get it. Nor was she offered much of an education. But she was stubborn; and when she discovered a school where she could earn her way through both the academy and college, she enrolled and did just that. She developed a yen for medicine. While in school she also joined a Presbyterian church and acquired a corresponding interest in missions.

In 1888 Eleanor entered Woman’s Medical College in Chicago, where she completed the programs for both doctors and nurses while living in an attic and eating mostly oatmeal. Following that—a stint at Moody Bible Institute.

On August 7, 1893 Eleanor was appointed a medical missionary and assigned to south China. Her work there was complicated by a poor grasp of the language and by impoverished conditions, and she continually found herself in arduous straits. On one occasion she became responsible for a demented patient who had ruined his brain with opium. “He thinks he is continually being pursued by demons,” she wrote a friend. “I have no place for him but my study. He is sometimes violent and has to be carefully watched. So I am sitting here on guard now.”

But her affection for the people of Lien-chou was boundless. She used her own bathroom as an operating room, and once used skin from her own leg as a graft for a coolie whose own leg was healing poorly following surgery. She established a women’s hospital in Lien-chou, living on $1.50 a month so the rest of her salary could be used to buy bricks.

She served China selflessly for ten years, then on October 29, 1905, her missions compound was attacked by an anti-foreign mob. Eleanor might have escaped had she not returned to aid her colleagues. Her final act of service was ripping a piece from her dress to bind a child’s wound.

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?” The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.” Jesus said, “Go and do the same!” (Luke 10:36,37)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). August 7.

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