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HOWARD, LEONORA ANNETTA (King), teacher and medical missionary; b. 17 March 1851 near Farmersville (Athens), Upper Canada, daughter of Peter Gilton Howard, a farmer, and Dorothy E. Carter; granddaughter of Dr Peter Howard*; m. 21 Aug. 1884 Alexander King in Tientsin (Tianjin, People’s Republic of China); d. 30 June 1925 in Peitaiho (Beidaihe, People’s Republic of China).

Educated in Soperton, near the family farm in Leeds County, Leonora Howard attended teachers’ college in Syracuse, N.Y., and spent some years teaching in eastern Ontario, but she really wanted to be a physician. Because the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Kingston would not accept women for training, she applied to the medical school of the University of Michigan, which admitted her in 1872. She graduated with honours and an md in 1876. The previous year she had applied to and been adopted by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the American Methodist Episcopal Church. Perhaps she had been influenced by Adelaide Galliland, a member of Leonora’s Methodist church in Soperton and the first Canadian woman to live in China, as the wife of an American missionary, Virgil Hart.

In 1877 Leonora was sent by the WFMS to China, where she took up residence in Peking (Beijing) to assist the American physician Lucinda L. Coombs, the first female doctor in China. After Coombs left the WFMS to marry in 1878, Leonora continued on her own and as an itinerant physician, operating from back doors, from broken-down inns, and even under trees in remote provincial villages. In August 1879 she was summoned to Tientsin by Li Hung-chang, the viceroy of Chihli province, to attend his wife, then recovering from serious illness.

Leonora was subsequently invited to remain – an extraordinary recognition of a westerner – and was given a portion of the memorial temple to statesman Tseng Kuo-fan in which to practise. Because of Lady Li’s influence, the doors (and presumably the wallets) of many wealthy and aristocratic Chinese were opened to her. Shortly thereafter Li Hung-chang’s mother left $1,000 for her work, a contribution said to be the first bequest to missionary endeavour from a Chinese woman. Leonora’s prestige was further enhanced in 1880, when missionaries and news correspondents credited her with helping secure the Sino-American treaty negotiated by James Burrill Angell, the American ambassador to China and president of the University of Michigan.

In 1881 Leonora opened, in Tientsin, the WFMS-sponsored Isabella Fisher Hospital for Women and Children, named for an American benefactor. As a result of Leonora’s efforts, the medical work of the WFMS’s North China mission became centred in Tientsin rather than Peking. Leonora regretted that her group’s evangelistic work did not keep pace with their medical work, though in reality she put less emphasis on conversion and fundamentalism than others did. In 1884 she married a widowed Scottish minister who had come to China in 1880, Alexander King of the London Missionary Society. Female missionaries who married were obliged to join their husband’s organizations, but although Leonora had to resign from the WFMS, she was never officially attached to the LMS. She now worked almost exclusively for the Chinese, who called her Dr Ke Ye-da (Chinese for King). In 1885 she opened the Government Hospital for Women and Children, again sponsored by Lady Li.

Leonora and Alex took their allotted furlough in 1891 to travel to Canada and England. When war broke out between China and Japan over the tributary country of Korea in 1894, Leonora closed her hospitals to all but Chinese soldiers and sailors. For her heroic efforts this tall, slim physician was awarded the Imperial Order of the Double Dragon the following year, thus becoming the first western woman to be made a mandarin. During the Boxer rebellion of 1900, the Kings and three others were the only missionaries to remain and work in besieged Tientsin – the rest fled to Japan or home. In 1902, a year after the death of Leonora’s mentor Li Hung-chang, the Kings went on just the second furlough of their careers: Alex returned to England and Scotland while Leonora, who loathed Britain’s climate, took medical courses in Vienna.

In 1908 she opened China’s first Government Medical School for Women in Tientsin, to teach Chinese women to become doctors and nurses. In 1915 a new Isabella Fisher Hospital was launched by the WFMS and a room was named in honour of Leonora King. Though she and her husband officially retired in 1917, they continued their “service of healing and love.” Sometime during this period they adopted Agnes Clarke, the daughter of British missionaries who had died during a disturbance.

The Kings travelled to Canada again in 1923 to visit Leonora’s family and look for a retirement property near Gananoque, in the county of her birth. Following her return to China to pack their belongings and close their houses, officials in Tientsin refused to let her practise any medicine. The reasons are unclear: perhaps she was being held to her retirement or was being sidelined by the new “China for the Chinese” attitude. Before she could leave she died of influenza at her country home in Peitaiho; her gravesite cannot be located. Alex King died in England in 1939.

Margaret Negodaeff

Sources for Howard’s life can be found in the author’s full-length biography, Honour due: the story of Dr. Leonora Howard King (Ottawa, 1999).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Margaret Negodaeff, “HOWARD, LEONORA ANNETTA (King),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howard_leonora_annetta_15E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howard_leonora_annetta_15E.html
Author of Article:   Margaret Negodaeff
Title of Article:   HOWARD, LEONORA ANNETTA (King)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   October 2, 2023