The Medical Mission
Dr.Nathan Barlow

Nathan BarlowThe many subsistence farmers in rural Ethiopia know too well about mossy foot disease, a debilitating physical condition resulting from barefoot farming on volcanic soils. It’s easy to prevent if one can afford shoes and socks, but remains a scourge among poverty-plagued Ethiopians who can receive vocational training and shoes for their children at one of 15 clinics — collectively, The Mossy Foot Project — devoted to treating this disease with medicine, surgery, shoes, vocational training and the Gospel message.

Impressive as the project is, it came near the end of the long career of service given by its founder, Nathan Barlow MD, who began the first Mossy Foot Treatment and Prevention Center in 1997, partnering with doctors at Soddo Christian Hospital, with which he had been affiliated for many years.

Dr. Barlow, who took his medical degree at the University of California at Berkeley, his wife, Doris, and their four children arrived in Africa in 1945 to do missionary work. The family served in the Wolaitta region of Ethiopia until the establishment of a Marxist government in 1977; to this day, according to a pastor who knew Nathan well, “in southern Ethiopia, Dr. Barlow is a legend.”

He treated every condition from gunshot wounds to spinal meningitis to bowel obstructions to blinding diseases of the eye, all in a hospital that would be considered primitive by today’s standards. He was a gifted teacher who started a school for wound-dressers who became nurse, lab technicians, community health workers and surgeons. All pretty amazing for a doctor who blind in one eye!

Always upbeat and imbued with a sense of life’s fundamental adventure, Dr. Barlow was as tireless in his battle against disease and death as he was in recruiting other physicians to join him with service to God and their fellow humans.

While the new Ethiopian government precipitated the Barlows’ departure from that country, they were not ready for retirement. They continued their medical mission work in Niger, Kenya, Zaire and the Central African Republic. Doris died when she was 78 and Nathan was 81. Despite a serious bout with malaria, he became involved in treatment of mossy foot; the clinic soon followed.

Despite such accomplishments, Nathan’s humility was apparent. While he was working in the Central African Republic, for instance, a French television crew approached him about making a documentary of his life. He turned them down, saying he was concerned that it might interfere with his work.

Although Nathan died in 2004 at age 91, that work — treating thousands of patients yearly — continues today.