American Physician Savior to Modern China

Syriac  Physician who Saved Modern China

Shafick Gorge Hatem (Ma Haide) M.D.

By Father Dale A. Johnson (Barhanna)


Father Dale A. Johnson, a Syriac Orthodox missionary priest, is on temporary sabbatical in China seeking out the history of contributions of Syriac Christians in China


The near legendary medical savior of the Communist Party and modern China was an American physician born in 1910 in Buffalo, New York, educated and raised as a youth in both upstate New York and North Carolina. He learned Syriac as a church language at Saint John’s Maronite Church and spoke Arabic and French in this immigrant community as well.


At the age of 8 he and his family was saved from death by the kindness of the West Syrian community of  New York who nursed his family back to health during the Asian flu epidemic of 1918 that killed millions.


He grew up understanding the sting of anti-semitic discrimination, the scourge of poverty, and the power of compassion. As the son of a middle eastern immigrant he was often considered a Jew. His father had come to America from Lebanon to work in the textile mills of the American Northeast. As a child he fought school bullies and endured the sadism of a reform school principal and Catholic priest. He escaped his minority status and suffering through his intelligence and compassion for the poor, the ill, and abused learned from the heroic examples of the Syriac immigrant community in America.


He entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but left after two years to the more welcoming educational community of the American University in Beruit, Lebanon.

His family had since moved to Greenville, North Carolina and opened a clothing and dry goods store. His brother Joseph and his father sent every spare cent to support George, the eldest son, to gain a medical degree and return home to America and provide the family with prestige and new wealth. The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out the family savings and ruined the business. George moved to Geneva Switzerland to attend medical school and shorten his medical education and path to gain a medical degree and help the family. While at the University of Geneva Medical School in Switzerland he became interested dermatology and to the study of venereal diseases which at the time was in the school of dermatology. He also first dreamed of going to China to study tropical diseases and the skin disorders associated with venereal disease so he could return to the American south where such forms of sexually transmitted diseases still existed. He never returned to the States. History and his call from God to serve the poor sent him to China.


Upon graduation from medical school in Geneva he traveled to Shanghai China with Lazar Katz and Robert Levinson his fellow medical school classmates. All had a passion to serve the needy. All had experienced the sting of discrimination and the pain of poverty of Depression Era Europe and America. What they found in Shanghai was more than what they expected. They found diseases of poverty due to lack of food, shelter, and clothing. Children were conscripted into slave labor in factories with no protection.  They had ulcers on their hands from exposure to mercury and were dead by the age of 14. Children were used to pull silk cocoons out of vats of boiling water with their bare hands. Children were used as oilers in cavernous machines and many lost arms, legs, fingers, if not their life. China was in the midst of a famine and war that would kill 6 million people.

Soon they had to leave Shaghai (1932) as the Japanese Armies began to move south from their bases in the north to prey upon a weakened China. Although George had originally planned to return to the States his plans were delayed by the war.

From 1933 to 1936 George Hatem became acquainted with the struggle for power in China and finally in 1936, with the help of Soong Ching-ling made it from Nationalist controlled areas in the south to Yan’an and the communist encampment. The first patient he treated was Mao Zedong leader of the communist resistance. He also aligned himself with  Soong Ching-ling who was the widow of Sun Yat-sen and one of the daughters of Charlie Soong. She and her sisters had been educated in America and often served as a bridge between foreigners and the Chinese. Her sister, Soong May-ling married Chiang Kai-shek. All three sisters worked to bring foreign aid to the people – medical supplies and food aid. Their partnership with George Hattem not only saved lives but helped the Chinese to defeat the Japanese military.

To enter the communist controlled areas of China George had to renounce his American citizenship and change his name to Ma Haide. From then on he was known as the beloved Dr. Ma. He was a stateless citizen until 1949 when he became the first foreigner to be accepted as a Chinese citizen.

There had been rumors in 1936 that Mao was dying and one of the jobs given Ma Haide was to confirm or deny the rumor. Edgar Snow, famed American journalist and writer for Life Magazine, traveled with Ma Haide and cited him as an authority for western sources. Mao was in perfect health and it was felt that the message would be believed if it came from a neutral source, such as a western doctor.

He worked at the Yan’an Hospital and also served as a physician to the Dixie Mission, the American 8th Army. He traveled with them to set up military hospitals in Shanxi.

In 1937 he became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1949, Mao sent him to Yunnan in southwest China to set up a public health system for the Miao and other minorities of the region. Mao Zedong was very interested in the minorities at that time, and wished to bring services to this long neglected and forgotten section of China. At that time, the policies were to maintain the language, customs and cultures of the people. There was a lot of work to do. Some of the minorities of the area were in slavery, literally. Most were close to starvation. Ma Haide set up the infrastructure to begin the long road to modernization of healthcare and returned to Beijing.

From 1950-53 he was a consultant for the Central People’s Government Ministry of Health. Then he worked to help found the Central Institute of Dermatology and Venereal Disease. This focused his attention not only on venereal disease, which had been a specialty since his medical school days, but also on the causes and prevention of leprosy.

In 1969, he transferred to Beijing’s Fu Wai Hospital to continue the same work.

In 1977, he moved to the Union Medical College Hospital of Dermatology and was appointed a consultant to the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Health.

Ma Haide received a number of international awards both for his work in venereal disease, but especially for advances in the treatment of leprosy.

He was active in politics to advance the cause of medical research and the expansion of medical care to remote areas. He was a member of the sixth and seventh Standing Committees of the CPPCC National Committee during the 1980s until his death in 1988.

George Hatem passed away on Oct. 3, 1988 in Beijing. His ashes were divided into three parts in compliance with his will, one portion was buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Beijing, another portion was buried at his birthplace—Buffalo City, and the remaining portion was scattered over the Yanhe River in Yan’an in northern Shaanxi.



Video interview of Ma Haide from Rutgers University Archive.

The People’s Doctor: George Hatem and China’s Revolution, University of Hawaii Press, 1997, ISBN 0824819055, .

Snow, Edgar. The Other Side of the River : Red China Today. New York : Random House, 1962



About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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