During his lifetime, John Abner Snell achieved an almost mythic stature. His siblings proudly described themselves as the brothers or sisters of Dr. John Snell, “the famous missionary doctor.” Among his colleagues, he was considered to be “one of the most progressive and capable surgeons of modern times.” Vanderbilt University honored him as “one of its illustrious alumni.” Many of his Chinese patients considered him to be nothing less than a miracle worker.
He was in the prime of his life; he seemed to be indomitable when fate intervened. He died unexpectedly March 2, 1936, at age 55, of pneumonia—many would say a martyr’s death.
John Abner Snell was the son of Leonidas Snell and Amy Jarrett. He was likely named for his two grandfathers, John Snell and Abner Jarrett, and represented a unique amalgamation of two very different families. His paternal grandfather, John Snell, emigrated to the United States from Germany around 1836 as a young man. During his exceptionally long life, he hop-scotched across the young nation, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and finally to central Minnesota. Brief accounts of his life indicate he was a proud, independent man who would rather die than ask for help.
The family of his mother, Amy Jarrett, included early Dutch and English immigrants. Her maternal family settled in the colonies long before the American Revolution and later descendants accompanied Daniel Boone across the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky. A generation later, these ancestors moved on to west-central Indiana. Not much is known of Amy’s father, but he likely was also a strong-willed man, as he raised and sold mules to supplement his income as a farmer.
Amy Jarrett grew up near Crawfordsville, Indiana, an early college town known at the time as the “Athens of Indiana.” Her family had strong fundamentalist religious leanings and her uncle was a famous frontier preacher. While she was a teenager, Amy’s family moved from the relatively civilized region near Crawfordsville to McLeod County, Minnesota, then on the edge of the frontier. Amy was quiet and strong—she displayed her strength and determination not in her words, but in actions.
The families of Leonidas Snell and Amy Jarrett were neighbors in McLeod County, Minnesota. The young couple married September 2, 1870, and soon moved to a small settlement near Duluth, Minnesota. John Abner Snell was born in Knife Falls, Minnesota, on October 28, 1880, the fifth of eight children. When he was around five years old, his parents made the long trek from northern Minnesota to central Florida, then a swampy, insect-infested frontier.
John was brought up in a Christian family and received training both at home and at Sunday school. At eleven years of age, he decided to “accept Jesus as my personal savior and join the church.” At fourteen, he later wrote there came into his “life a desire to devote myself to God’s service. It was what I considered a call.”
Education Became the Key
It was John’s mother Amy who insisted her children obtain the best education possible. She felt so strongly about the importance college that she left her husband sometime in the late 1890s and took her boys to Nashville, Tennessee, where college was more readily available.
John completed his undergraduate education at Peabody Normal College in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 27, 1903. During college, he was active in the Student Volunteer Movement, an organization that promoted foreign missions among the young, educated Protestants. Members were attracted to the movement by a combination of religious fervor and a continuation of the American frontier spirit.
Marriage and Missions
During his junior year at college, John met his future wife, Grace Evelyn Birkett, who was also a student. After completing his undergraduate degree and two years of work, John entered Vanderbilt Medical College in 1905. He and Grace were married on November 1, 1907. In 1908, with graduation approaching, John applied to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to work in the foreign missions. He must have impressed Walter R. Lambuth, who chaired the selection process and had earlier co-founded Soochow Hospital in 1883. The new doctor was approved and assigned to work at the hospital in Soochow (Suzhou).
Soon after arriving in Soochow, John received his Chinese name, Soo E-sang. While he was still learning the language, Dr. Park, the co-founder of the hospital, left for a one year furlough. When Park returned, the two doctors divided the hospital duties, with Snell assuming responsibility for surgery and general administration. In 1920, Snell obtained financing from the Rockefeller Foundation for a major expansion to the hospital.
During his many years of practice, Snell earned the respect and admiration of both his patients and colleagues. One story tells of his medical skill and compassion:
A little girl about eleven years old was brought in with tuberculosis of the left hip with discharging sinus. She was an orphan. … No one came to visit her. Dr. Snell … thought her curable and set to work to prove it. Throughout twenty months – 609 hospital days – he labored to save her. He operated three times; he x-rayed her five times; he was so impressed with what a fine sport she was that he came to love her as though she were his own child. Imagine his great joy when he discharged her on December 31, 1930, as cured.
In addition to his regular hospital duties and outside interests, Snell conducted many scientific and public health investigations and was a regular contributor to professional journals. Among his subjects, he assisted in discovering the snail which acts as the intermediate host of oriental blood fluke, a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. He tested every patient entering the hospital for syphilis and compiled the first accurate information on the prevalence of the disease. He also promoted an anti-tuberculosis campaign.
John Snell’s Legacy
John Snell and his wife Grace had seven children, all born in Suzhou: Lura Evelyn (1910), Dorothy May (1911), John Raymond (1912), Martha Amy (1915), Grace Birkett (1917), Walter Arthur (1920), and Fred Manget (1921).
During the last few months before his unexpected death, Snell seems to have crystallized his spiritual philosophy. In one of his last letters, he wrote to his children, “You will think your old dad has gone crazy on the subject of love. … But too much emphasis cannot be put on this word.”
Fred Snell, his youngest son, recalled that while he was growing up, he and his father would occasionally visit the countryside. “We visited points of interest like Buddhist temples where we were always welcomed and served tea. I would listen to my father talk to the priests and they to him. He was always respectful of their beliefs.”
He wrote to his children that “although love is the very core of Christ’s teachings, [we Christians] do not yet realize or know the real meaning of the word.” He explained that love was too abstract to be useful as a concept, it must be “illustrated in concrete terms and examples.” He charged each of his children to find a way to live and work to demonstrate love.
The death of John Snell came unexpectedly, but in the line of duty. The following tribute describes his last hours:
“On March 2, 1936, Soochow Hospital and the Methodist Mission suffered an irreparable loss in the death of Dr. John A. Snell. On Monday, February 24, he had half a dozen operations scheduled. After the first he had to call for a chair and rest a few minutes. In spite of a temperature of 102, he drove through with the second. The next morning he was removed to the hospital and a fight began for his life, the local doctors calling in their colleagues from Huchow and Chanchow Hospitals of the same mission. But all efforts to save his life were in vain. Dr. Snell’s death left the community in shock. His family, friends, and colleagues walked around and asked in disbelief, “Is Dr. Snell dead? What will we do? Is Soo E-sang dead? How can that be?”
In 1994, Soochow Hospital celebrated its 110th anniversary. Two of John Snell’s sons, John and Fred, attended the official ceremony as honored guests.
Biography of Maud Snell prepared by her daughter Grace Snell in 1952. The obituary of Leonidas Snell notes that he was the father of “the late John Snell … chief surgeon in the Soochow Hospital.”
Comments of Dr. W. G. Gram, general secretary of the Board of Missions, upon hearing of the death of Dr. Snell.
“John Abner Snell: 1880-1936,” The Vanderbilt Alumnus, 1936
Dailey, Dale J., Unpublished biography of “The Original John Snell.”
Biography of Maud Snell, self published.
Snell, John Abner, Letter of January 16, 1908 to W. R. Lambuth applying for missionary work., (Drew University Archive)
March 12, 1931 report of “The Park Memorial Charity Fund.”
Meleny, Henry. Tribute to John A. Snell, 1936.
Gamble, Sidney David, Á Social Survey Conducted under the Auspices of Princeton University in China, pg. 259 cites the work of J. A. Snell of Soochow.
Manget, Fred, p. 319 Snell, John letter #1 dated February 16, 1936.
The China Christian Advocate, “Dr. John A. Snell of Soochow,” April, 1936, pg. 18
By Dale J. Dailey. Dailey is a retired automobile engineer from DeWitt, Michigan who now serves as family historian. Both of his wife’s parents were born and grew up in China, the children of missionaries.
This article is taken, with permission, from the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity.
Snell, John A., “Report of Feces Examination of 424 Cases in the Surgical Service of Soochow Hospital,” China Medical Association, Shanghai, 1913.
Snell, John A., “Cholera in Soochow, 1919,” The China Medical Advisor, May, 1920 (Drew University Archive)
Snell, John A. M.D., “Exercise and Health,” The Chinese Recorder, December, 1921. (This article was also published as a separate pamphlet.)
Snell, John A., “A Modern Mission Hospital at Soochow, China,” Modern Hospital, April 1924, Vol. 22, No. 4.
Snell, John A., “Chinese Copper Coins of the Twentieth Century,” The Numismatist, June, 1932.
Snell, John A., An Enquiry into the Present Efficiency of Hospitals in Chine with Special Reference to Recent Growth, China Medical Association, Shanghai, 1934.
Dr. Snell also prepared the annual reports for Soochow Hospital while he served as superintendent.