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Ruth V. Hemenway papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00077

Scope and Contents

The Ruth Hemenway Papers consist of a small amount of printed biographical material, an oil painting, photographs, and twenty original diaries, 1924-41. The diaries provide a detailed record of her eighteen years as medical missionary to China and include photographs and drawings. They describe medical and surgical cases, customs and rural culture, and the political upheaval of pre-war China. They also contain valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the Western missionary endeavor in China which Hemenway had joined even though she was skeptical of the goal to convert China. They are rich with poignant and perceptive pictures of Chinese village life in southeastern China, of modernized urban life in the Kuomintang-controlled Yangtze Valley on the eve of the Japanese invasion of 1937, and the besieged wartime capital of Chunking in western China. They also reflect her own personal struggle with isolation and discrimination. A portion of her 1928 diary describes her travels through Europe, the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and China Sea on her way back to China after a furlough home. Hemenway indexed the diaries. Excerpts of Hemenway's diaries were edited by Fred W. Drake in Ruth V. Hemenway, M.D.: A Memoir of Revolutionary China, 1924-1941, published by The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1977.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1924-1979


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that she owns copyright, Ruth Hemenway's niece Sally Mundell has retained copyright in her works donated to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by Hemenway, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Ruth V. Hemenway was born in 1894 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, the third of five children of Elijah and Ella (Shumway) Hemenway. She was raised on her father's 100 acre farm and intellectually nurtured by her mother who was a teacher. Following graduation from Williamsburg High School in 1910, in order to save enough money to go to medical school, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Conway, Massachusetts, and later in the Williamsburg-Searsville School. She earned her way through Tufts Medical School, graduating in 1921, and by her junior year had decided to practice medicine in China. After interning at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia and at the Pennsylvania State Hospital in Allentown, she realized that the best opportunity to reach that goal was to become a Christian missionary.

In 1924 she accepted support from The Grace Harris Memorial and an appointment from the Methodist Women's Board of Foreign Missions to direct a 100-bed hospital for women in Mintsing, Fukien, China. She remained there for thirteen years, except for one year when she was surgeon at a Methodist hospital in Nanking. Hemenway entered China at a time of great political unrest with political parties, warlords, and bandits battling for control. Although encouraged by the Chinese unification under Chaing Kai-shek in 1928, she continued to believe that the hope of China's future lay in the rural communities where eighty percent of the people lived. She established clinics, health facilities, and paramedical teams; and introduced programs in elementary hygiene and science. She was especially interested in improving the health of women and mothers, establishing prenatal counseling and general child care. Although she grew increasingly alienated from the goals and practices of organized Christianity, she continued her work with the firm belief that with or without the aid of Christian missionaries, the combination of modern knowledge and ancient Chinese traditions would produce a new China. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, she went to Chunking, then the capital, to head the obstetrical department of a hospital sponsored by Syracuse University. She stayed in Chunking until 1941 when she returned to the United States on furlough.

Hemenway spent a year of study at the Hague Maternity Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, and later took a position on the staff at Christian Hospital in Sharon, Pennsylvania. Although she had every intention of returning to China, due to her mother's failing health, she remained in Williamsburg where she continued her medical practice. Hemenway was an avid watercolorist whose paintings of China were exhibited locally. She adopted four Chinese children. Ruth Hemenway died in Northampton, Massachusetts, July 9, 1974, at the age of 80.


2.188 linear feet (6 containers)


Medical missionary, teacher, and physician. Twenty diaries provide a detailed record of the eighteen years Hemenway spent as a medical missionary in China. They describe medical and surgical cases, customs and rural culture, and the political upheaval of pre-WWII China. The diaries are rich with poignant and perceptive pictures of Chinese village life, of modernized urban life, and China during wartime. The diaries also reflect her own personal struggle with isolation and discrimination.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Ruth Hemenway donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1960-1962. Georgiana Foster donated a painting in 2000. Bethany H. Ouimette donated copy prints from a family photograph album in 2001. Robert Grossman donated two letters via the Smith college Museum of Art in 2019.

Processing Information

Processed by Susan Boone, 2001.



Ruth V. Hemenway papers
Finding Aid
Susan Boone
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss29 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:15-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063