Frances E. Scherer

Frances E. Scherer

“We need many things in Changsha—more things that can easily be spoiled or burned or bombed. But it seems to me there is one thing that these people do not lack. It is hard to describe, but perhaps fortitude comes as close as any word to the meaning.”

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Former Dean, Xiangya School of Nursing

On November 30, 2008, Yale-China mourned the loss of a truly extraordinary individual, Mrs. Frances E. Scherer. Born in 1912 in Shanghai to Henan-based American Free Methodist missionaries George and Mary Schlosser, Mrs. Scherer spent most of her childhood in China and would call the country home, eventually graduating from Yenjing University in 1937. From 1946 until 1949, she served as the Dean of the Xiangya School of Nursing, guiding the school through its postwar reconstruction, only to be forced away from her beloved post by the Communist revolution. While in Changsha she fell in love with Yale Bachelor (now Reverend) Jim Scherer (B.A. ’46) and the two were married in a ceremony that counted everyone from Yali and Xiangya School of Nursing students and staff, to the Hunan provincial governor amongst its guests. Some of our older readers may remember Mrs. Scherer, a prolific writer, for her late-1940s dispatches, “Nurse-in-China”, which were often included in Yale-in-China mailings.

Mrs. Scherer’s self-published memoir, To Be a Pilgrim, grants a glimpse into her early years when she endured real difficulties: the often lonely existence of a child of foreign missionaries, the daily realities of China’s long struggles with war and poverty, the hard living in the U.S. during the Great Depression, the gruesome slaughter of the Sino-Japanese war, the rigors of tackling the Johns Hopkins nursing curriculum whilst recovering from a near-fatal illness, and rebuilding Xiangya in the face of uncertainty and poverty in Changsha after WWII. Mrs. Scherer’s destiny forced her to meet many of the 20th century’s most dramatic upheavals head-on, and while she wrote openly of the tolls the times took on her, it is her constantly evolving faith and resolve to be of service that shine most brightly in her stories.

Although the Depression and the Sino-Japanese war conspired to rob her of her dream to be a doctor, Mrs. Scherer would find ways to help others. She spent time on the front lines of the war against the Japanese, where she and her friends did their best to alleviate the suffering of soldiers. She writes in To Be a Pilgrim of her time in Kaifeng as a member of the Free Methodist missionary staff that:

“Young men in ragged, dirty uniforms were shattered for life. We had no antibiotics, no analgesics, not even enough aspirin to go around. Trains were coming in at the rate of three or four a day, sometimes with 200 to 600 men on each. Literally thousands of wounded men came through Kaifeng in 1938. The shocking thing was that we saw not one single weapon among them, nor even an officer who appeared to be in charge or to care for them. The situation was one of total chaos. We were told that the men were being taken to a hospital in the rear, but no one had ever seen this place or knew anything about it.”

Three years later, while in the U.S., Mrs. Scherer’s healer’s instincts were reignited by the attack on Pearl Harbor and she enrolled in the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Not long after her graduation, Dr. Edward Hume recruited her for Yale-in-China and she soon found herself in Changsha. The tragic death of Dr. Winston Pettus in the crash of the small plane he used to fly medical supplies across China occurred while Mrs. Scherer was en route to China, leaving her the sole Western medical employee upon arrival at Xiangya.

When she arrived, Mrs. Scherer set foot onto a Changsha nearly in ruins. The medical campus buildings still bore the stench and twisted metal left by scorched earth campaigns; nearly everything was destroyed, right down to the electric wiring, remains of which now protruded at strange angles from the walls; and resources were so scarce that linens and scrubs were rarely washed, much less sterilized. Even glass and screens for the operating room windows were unheard of, and instead they were covered by paper that melted in the rain. The nursing students slept in an attic so poorly finished that the women and their belongings were soaked in every rainfall. If Mrs. Scherer was discouraged, she never let on in her correspondence. Dozens of pages of letters in the Yale-China Association archives reveal her tirelessness and endless appeals for support of any kind—as well as a joy in her work that is clearly evident. In one letter she wrote,

“We need many things in Changsha—more things that can easily be spoiled or burned or bombed. But it seems to me there is one thing that these people do not lack. It is hard to describe, but perhaps fortitude comes as close as any word to the meaning. It is a dogged persistence and refusal to be beaten that has carried them through years of unspeakable hardship and suffering, both physical and spiritual… The work goes on, and every day things become a little better, and a little closer to the original idea of the hospital. Standards have, of necessity, been lower during these war years, but ideals are still high and now that peace is here again the standards are rising and there is new hope and cheer for everyone, and especially for the hard working little nurses in the School of Nursing.”

Sadly, Mrs. Scherer’s work in Changsha was to come to an unavoidable halt as China underwent yet another seismic shift. On November 26, 1948, a Thanksgiving her husband calls “unforgettable,” the newlyweds were forced to evacuate Changsha. They elected to return, however, and were given permission to do so by Dwight Rugh, Senior Yale-China Field Representative, in consultation with Chinese staff. The couple remained in Changsha until June 1949, when it was decided they needed to evacuate again, this time for good. Traveling through Hong Kong, the two eventually made it back to the States where Jim entered theological studies that would eventually lead the couple to Japan. Mrs. Scherer became well-versed in Japanese language and culture. Later, when they resided in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, she added a teaching certification to her qualifications and taught at the Harvard-St. George School, famous for serving the families of many noteworthy African-Americans. The couple continued to travel widely, spending stretches in England, Israel, and traveling extensively in Africa, where Mrs. Scherer’s father was posted on his first missionary assignment.

It was not until 1980 that Mrs. Scherer was able to return to China. True pilgrims, she and her husband made five trips between then and 1997, expanding their personal frontiers and making a memorable excursion deep into the old Silk Road route. She is survived by her husband, Jim; a son, James; a daughter, Susan; a brother, John Schlosser; a sister, Winifred Waltner; and five grandchildren.

—Mattias Daly, Yale-China Staff Intern

Photo of Frances Scherer courtesy of Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives. Slight changes to dates in this article have been made since it was first published in the Spring 2009 Yale-China Review.


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