The Medical Mission
Dr. William Larimer Mellon, Jr.
1910 - 1989

William Larimer MellonWilliam Larimer Mellon, Jr., M.D. was born in Pittsburgh, PA, heir to part of the Mellon family’s banking and oil fortune. After one year at Princeton University, a brief marriage, and some experience working for both the Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, Mellon concluded that his primary interests were not in the traditional family businesses. He left Pittsburgh and bought a ranch near Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, where he worked as a cowboy, building fences and riding herd.

Upon reading an article in the October 6, 1947 Life Magazine about Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s medical missionary work in Gabon, West Africa, Mellon became inspired to establish a medical mission of his own. He corresponded with Schweitzer from 1947 until Schweitzer’s death in 1965. Soon after, Mellon decided to enroll in medical school at Tulane University with the goal of establishing a medical mission of his own. He and Gwen, who became a medical technician, chose a site for their hospital: a former banana plantation in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley with a 600-square-mile area, 185,000 people, and not a single doctor in practice at the time. Funded with Mellon’s own money, Gwen supervised the construction of the hospital while Mellon completed his studies at Tulane.

Through the community development program, they initiated dozens of sanitation projects. They collared old wells and dug new ones for the clean cooking and bathing water that hadn’t been obtainable in generations. The laborers – always including Dr. Mellon - built latrines as well as rammed-earth houses, dams, and irrigation canals that soon saw rice paddies flourishing for the first time. To double the rice yield, they introduced a new strain of rice into the Artibonite Valley. Dr. Mellon’s discovery of large deposits of clay by the Artibonite River led to the production of bricks. From the late 1950’s to the end of his life, Mellon worked from 7:00 am until late afternoon on his countless community service projects. By late afternoon he would return, stopping in front of the hospital to drop off the sick people who had waited along the way. He always filled his old Land Rover with patients. Then, Dr. Mellon spent the remainder of his day concerned with music, languages and conversation.

In his last years, Dr. Mellon was hospitalized briefly at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. During his stay, he insisted on the same room, bed, sheets, and food as everyone else: “We don’t have two types of sick people here,” he explained. Just a few weeks before he lost a long battle with cancer and Parkinson’s disease, he had gone with Gwen to buy a cheap coffin of wood and cardboard. Mellon left an inspirational example to people who often spent as much as half a year’s income on their funerals. After his death, the hospital continued under Gwen’s leadership until her death in 2000 when loved ones buried her by her husband’s side near their home in Deschapelles, Haiti.

  • Inducted into the Medical Mission Hall of Fame Foundation, 2005

Hôpital Albert Schweitzer - Deschapelles, Haiti

The cornerstone of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer was laid on December 11, 1954 for, named for its source of inspiration.The hospital entrance

The hospital opened on June 26, 1956, but Mellon quickly recognized that medicine alone could only make a dent in the underlying Haitian dilemma. To cure people and then return them to the same environment that produced the disease did not much help them in the long run. Accordingly, he "doctored for about three years and then turned his attention to the creation of a vast array of ambitious service projects. Beginning in 1959, the hospital’s community development program and outreach centers began. Additionally, they started an elementary school on the campus and taught reading, writing, basic health, sewing, carpentry, homemaking, and childcare.

Through the community development program, they initiated dozens of sanitation projects. They collared old wells and dug new ones for the clean cooking and bathing water that hadn’t been obtainable in generations. The laborers – always including Dr. Mellon - built latrines as well as rammed-earth houses, dams, and irrigation canals that soon saw rice paddies flourishing for the first time. To double the rice yield, they introduced a new strain of rice into the Artibonite Valley. Dr. Mellon’s discovery of large deposits of clay by the Artibonite River led to the production of bricks. From the late 1950’s to the end of his life, Mellon worked from 7:00 am until late afternoon on his countless community service projects. By late afternoon he would return, stopping in front of the hospital to drop off the sick people who had waited along the way. He always filled his old Land Rover with patients. Then, Dr. Mellon spent the remainder of his day concerned with music, languages and conversation.

Mellon Hospital Dedication Speech

Mellon’s own words may best describe the nature of his humanity. Quoting from the speech he delivered at the hospital’s dedication ceremony:

"First and most important is treatment of the sick from Deschapelles and neighboring areas of the Artibonite Valley. Second comes that of inviting foreign specialists from various branches of medicine to visit Haiti and encouraging Haitian doctors and qualified students to attend demonstrations of operative techniques. … Finally, the hospital staff must seek to foster interest and a sense of responsibility in members of the community, especially among the young, for solving public health problems and spreading information about hygiene and other aspects of disease prevention. Without doctors, nurses, technicians and staff consecrated to the service of humanity, this hospital will fall short of our expectations. A modern building complete with diagnostic and therapeutic equipment is not a hospital although it may represent a useful tool in a beautiful shell. Even when staffed with trained medical personnel, such an institution might be a dismal failure unworthy of the name "hospital." Besides buildings with men and women, hospitals require food and medicine administered with insight and love, all the qualities that make up ethics. To this task my wife and I humbly dedicate ourselves. May the spark of "reverence for life" which came to us from across the Atlantic Ocean continue to burn until it has consumed us with real and deep concern for every living creature that suffers."