Brewster, Harold N.

1905 - 1965
Missionary doctor, pioneer of Christ Hospital, Kapit (Sarawak)

Dr Harold Nesbitt Brewster was born on Decenber 19, 1905, in Xinghua (now Putian) in China, the youngest among seven children of Rev and Mrs William Brewster. Rev Brewster, an American missionary, was instrumental in organising and bringing migrants from Xinghua in Fujian Province, China, to Sarawak in 1912.

Since young, Harold Brewster had wanted to become a doctor so that he could treat not just people’s bodies but also their souls. In 1951, he graduated from Boston University of Medicine, specialising in the study of tuberculosis. He then returned to Fujian with his wife, Dorothy, and their one-year-old daughter, Betty.

His first missionary assignment (1933 to 1944) was at Wiley Hospital, established by the Methodist Episcopal Mission in Gutian, a rural district in Fujian. While working there as the medical officer-in-charge, he faced many challenges as a civil war was then raging between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. In November 1933, the Fujian mutiny broke out and the heaviest battle between the Kuomintang and the 19th Squadron of the Communist Party was fought in Gutian. Dr Brewster braved the shooting and dashed between his home and the hospital every day to care for the wounded.

In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and the only way for civilians to travel from Fuzhou to Gutian was on the Ming River. During the two-day journey, travellers faced the danger of murderous bandits.

In 1938, through the joint effort of American churches, the Christian Concord Hospital in Fuzhou was completed. At that time, it was one of the best hospitals in China. However, owing to a shortage of manpower, Dr Brewster from Gutian had to also take on the duties of medical officer-in-charge at the new hospital, requiring him to travel between the two hospitals. When the Japanese occupied Fuzhou, they banned travelling along the Ming River. Any offender would be shot. But this was before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and Americans were still safe, although they were not allowed to carry medicine with them.

When the medical store at one of the hospitals was bombed, Dr Brewster had to quickly think of a plan. He chartered a big boat and loaded over a hundred crates of medical supplies, some clothes, and sundries. As expected, the Japanese stopped the boat for inspection and Dr Brewster was asked to open the crates. Each was fitted with a lock and the prudent doctor purposely fumbled with a big bundle of keys. It took quite a while to open each crate and after some 10 crates, the Japanese soldiers lost patience and waved for them to go. 

After his first mission assignment ended in 1944, Dr Brewster returned to the US and practised in a Boston clinic. At the same time, he took up public health study in the medical faculty at Harvard University. 

He was assigned to Fuzhou for a second term from 1946 to 1950 during which he worked at the Concord Union Hospital. When the Communists came to power in 1949, the year the Chinese Methodist Church celebrated her centenary, missionaries were forced to leave China. Thus, in 1950, Dr Brewster, his wife and their three daughters and son left their beloved Fuzhou. From 1950-1951, he was head of the World Health Organisation tuberculosis control demonstration project in El Salvador. 

Owing to his ability to speak the Foochow and Hin Hua dialects, Dr Brewster was sent to Sarawak in 1956 to help set up a new hospital in Kapit, a remote town about 160 miles inland from the coast. The town was upstream of the Rajang River from Sibu, which was populated by a great number of descendants of Fuzhou agriculturalist pioneers who had migrated from China. Christ Hospital was opened in 1960. The following year, Dr Ding Lik Kiu took charge of the hospital. 

A young Harvard medical graduate, Richard Barnett Blakney, served as Dr Brewster's assistant. Richard subsequently married Betty, the Brewsters’ eldest daughter who had also come to Sarawak to serve as a nurse in Christ Hospital. 

When Dr Brewster left Christ Hospital in 1958, there were doctors, nurses and supporting staff from six countries serving there and it was recognised as the best hospital in central Sarawak. Upon returning to the US, he was appointed as the medical secretary of the board of missions of the US Methodist Church. He visited many foreign hospitals and developed plans for mobile clinics, hospitals and medical projects for the church.

In 1965, Dr Brewster passed away suddenly from a heart attack. He was only 59. His wife, Dorothy, passed away in 2003. Their four children lived, travelled and worked in different parts of Asia and the world, continuing a tradition of family service that began in 1884 with Rev William Brewster and his wife Elizabeth who served as missionaries in China.[1]


  1. ^ “History of Christ Hospital Kapit 1957-1974”, “Sarawakiana@2”(blog), June 29, 2009. 

© SCAC. This article from Missionaries to Sarawak: Footprints in the Land of Hornbills is reproduced with permission of the Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference, The Methodist Church in Malaysia, with editing for clarity and brevity. 

[Missionaries to Sarawak: Footprints in the Land of Hornbills 1 and 2 are compiled by Wong Meng Lei (also chief editor), edited by Tumi Ngae, and translated by Christina Tiong, K.T. Chew, and Chang Yi. Book 2 translators are Christina Tiong, K.T. Chew, Chang Yi and Ting Kong Sing.]