Johanne Christensen “- a most remarkable Danish woman”

Most people have experienced visiting a cemetery in a foreign land and there found a grave with the name of one of their own countrymen. You have no other information than what is provided on the stone and your mind starts wondering why he or she came to rest here.
     The old Siam was full of such unusual characters.
     Some were here because the administration was not in the hands of one of the colonial powers who would regulate everything their way, but rather in the hands of a progressive King and a friendly government who welcomed foreigners. Plenty enjoyed this hospitality. Some hoped to make a quick fortune; others were simply adventurous. Some were on the run; others had come to serve their God by fulfilling a calling.
     Johanne Henriette Christensen was definitely one of the idealists. Born May 22, 1881 and educated as a nurse back in Denmark, Johanne Henriette Christensen spent most of her adult life in Thailand where she died November 7, 1939.
     Her dedication to improve the lives of Thai women and children was outstanding. Still, today only few people would know that Bangkok Christian Hospital is for instance founded on the outstanding child birth clinic established and operated by this remarkable Dane.
     I was first told about Johanne Christensen some forty years ago. It was Miss Ladawan Mathiesen, the Housekeeping Manager of Bangkok Christian Hospital, who mentioned her name. Miss Ladawan was half Danish, half Mon. Before her father moved back to Denmark he had made arrangements for Ladawan to be taken care of by Johanne Christensen.
     Miss Ladawan was proud to inform me that she was herself indeed one of the nurses educated by Johanne Christensen and after her death in 1939 Miss Ladawan became one of the people who carried forward her work.
     Another person who brought my attention to Johanne Christensen was Mary Altha Eakin Laugesen – herself a great personality. She was born in 1906 at Bangkok Christian College as the youngest daughter of the pioneer John Anderson Eakin who lived in Thailand from 1888 till 1927. Some will recognise the name Mary Laugesen as one of the co-authors of the book Scandinavians in Siam (reprinted in 2002 and available from Scandinavian Society Siam). She became one of the co-authors of this book because of her marriage to Gudmund Laugesen of East Asiatic Company.
     Mary Laugesen lived in Denmark for many years and knew the Danish language. In the State Archives of Denmark a manuscript by her hand “Danes in Thailand” is kept. She was a brilliant storyteller and wrote among others a biography of her father.
     Also Mary Laugesen spoke to me about Johanne Christensen with considerable respect as one of kind which is rarely found. In her unpublished manuscript she describes her as: “ – a most remarkable woman, a nurse of superb skill, a supervisor with a no-nonsense discipline, and with a Christian devotion hard to match.”
     So who was she? Well, inspite of her obvious reputation, factual information about her achievements in Thailand is surprisingly hard to find.
     Johanne Christensen was born in Aalborg on May 22, 1881 as the daughter of railway supervisor Poul Martin Christensen. She attended private school and after her graduation from secondary school she took a one year course in child care in Copenhagen.
     In 1907 Johanne Christensen enrolled to become a nurse at Copenhagen Municipal Hospital and upon her graduation she travelled to New York. Here she was introduced to a doctor affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Siam. This encounter became her destiny.
     November 1911 Johanne Christense left for Siam where her final destination was a new missionary station established in Trang province. This province was at the time very isolated. There was no scheduled connection by boat to Bangkok and no road or railways extended this far South of the capital.
     Johanne Christensen first went by steamer to Singapore. From there she travelled to Penang and from here onwards by a small local boat to Kantang which was at the time the main city of Trang province. From Kantang to Tap Tien – today the city of Trang – you would have to go by rowing boat, on horseback or by ox cart.
     Johanne Christensen arrived Kantang Christmas Eve and was handed the telegram sent from Singapore to inform the missionaries in Tap Tien of her arrival. So there was nobody to pick her up and her first Christmas was celebrated in the company of some British railway workers.
     The mission in Tap Tien (Trang) became Johanne Christensen’s home for the next 11 years. Together with Dr. and Mrs. Bulkley she established a modern hospital in the city and at times she was heading the project herself.
     This was the case when the Siamese government in 1913 during an outbreak of Cholera assigned Dr. Bulkley the responsibility of the public health care in this part of the country. So it was Johanne Christensen who was in charge when that same year the High Commission for Southern Thailand, Phya Ratsada and his nephew, the Governor of Trang, were ambushed and the two prominent men were brought to the hospital for treatment of their injuries.
     The following year, the Danish harbour master in Phuket, Frits Haurowith drowned on February 14, 1914 when trying to approach the harbour of Trang. Of course Johanne Christensen organized his funeral and ensured that a Danish flag covered his coffin.
     For two years – from 1917 to 1919 – Johanne Christensen also filled a vacant position as medical doctor at the Missionary Hospital in Phitsanulok.
     It was, however, in Bangkok that Johanne Christensen found her calling for life. In 1922 the head of the mission approved her request to open a clinic for child delivery “Mataphawasatan” on Thanon Plap Pla Chai in Bangkok and here she help deliver many hundreds of Thai children over the years to come. It stands as an exceptional testimony to her skill and dedication, that during all those years, only one(!) single mother died in labour at her institution. It was also here that Johanne Christensen over the years educated a whole generation of Thai nurses and midwives.
     The place eventually became too small and Johanne Christensen started making plans for a move. A plot of land was purchased on Thanon Phyathai where today Bangkok Christian Student center is located. This was where her new clinic was going to be built. But before her plans could be carried out, Johanne Christensen fell seriously ill and cancer was diagnosed. She was sent to McCormick hospital in Chiangmai for treatment while the mission board tried to obtain a passage for her to U.S.A. or Denmark under supervision of the Danish doctor Niels Nedergaard; but before this was finally arranged, Johanne Christensen passed away November 7, 1939.
     A proposal was tabled to name the new hospital “Johanne Christensen’s Memorial Hospital”, and an American doctor was assigned to take over the responsibility for the clinic, but with the outbreak of the World War II the plans had to be cancelled. Instead the work at the clinic was carried forward by dedicated staff like Ladawan Mathiesen.
     After the war, the Presbyterian Church in Thailand bought another plot of land between Silom and Suriwongse including a few major buildings. Johanne Christensen’s clinic was consequently moved here and initially this was the only medical facility of the new Bangkok Christian Hospital.
     However, when the new hospital was officially opened in 1949 it was not given her name and today, she is remembered by only very few.
     Last year, I personally met one of the many children which Johanne Christensen took into her care during her lifelong commitment to serving the poor in Thailand. His name is Peter or Phairot and he lives today in Lampang. During our meeting, he shared with me his fond memories of his adopted mother who managed to secure his education before she passed away.

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