Dr Victor Heiser arrived in Bangkok in April 1915 aboard the steamship Kuala. As a representative of the newly created Rockefeller Foundation, he had sailed from Singapore to investigate the state of public health in Siam. Over the course of 11 days in the country, the tall, genial, outspoken doctor met with government officials, visited a hospital for the mentally disabled, gathered data on agricultural production, imports and exports, and played tennis with other expatriates in the capital city, Bangkok.
The ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya was one of the places Dr Victor Heiser went to during his visit to Thailand in April 1915.
Thai officials of the Royal Court who met Heiser were gracious, but probably sceptical about his intentions. Infighting among the foreigners in Bangkok was notorious, as Westerners sought to influence the government for their own economic advantage. King Rama VI, who enjoyed drama and was a playwright, often depicted these Westerners as silly or devious characters. Heiser, with his pith helmet and outsized personality, undoubtedly played to these stereotypes. But he was in Siam on serious business.
Pressed between French Indochina and British Burma, Siam (renamed Thailand in 1939) had jealously guarded its independence from European colonial intrusion. As a result, the country had been spared the harsh exploitation of colonial rule that would sometimes lead to failed or ineffective governments in post-colonial Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. With roughly 8 million people in 1915, Thailand was governed by a hereditary monarch from the House of Chakri, which had ruled Thailand since the end of the 18th century. Over three generations, the kings of Thailand had been introducing Western ideas of public administration to strengthen the country. King Mongkut (Rama IV), a student of Western languages and mathematics, opened diplomatic relations with major Western powers. His son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ascended the throne towards the end of the 19th century, was educated by a British tutor and was the first Thai monarch to travel abroad, including two trips to Europe where he met with other heads of state. He abolished slavery and launched an extensive modernisation effort, including important reforms to the legal system, public finances, the military and the education system. In the 1890s, King Chulalongkorn introduced a cabinet government composed of 12 ministries. Civil servants were trained in special schools for government service, with the most promising students sent to study abroad.
After King Chulalongkorn' s death in 1910, his son, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), continued these initiatives, building the first modern hospital in honour of his father in 1912, and establishing a medical science research centre in 1913 to produce vaccines for cholera and antidotes for poisons. King Rama VI had studied at Oxford University, travelled widely, and surrounded himself with a court of European advisers. Heiser concluded that the king's initiatives made Siam an ideal place for the Rockefeller Foundation to develop one of its first international public-health campaigns.
Phra Meru, built for the royal cremation in 1926, following the death of King Vajiravudh.
The Rockefeller Foundation had been chartered in 1913 with a broad mission "to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world". It was a bold international vision, and the foundation quickly focused on ways it might make a difference in the world. The work was carried out by the International Health Commission (renamed the International Health Board or IHB in 1916), and Victor Heiser was named director for the Far East.
The IHC's first global initiative was inspired by a little-known, but highly influential project that had been one of John D Rockefeller's first regional philanthropic efforts in the US. In 1909, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission had sent organisers into the rural counties of the American South to try to eradicate ankylostomiasis (hookworm disease) among 2 million poor farmers and their families. The campaign had been an overwhelming success. And, in the course of treating 500,000 people, the commission's director, Wickliffe Rose, discovered something else that proved of enormous significance.
Attacking hookworm infections provided an opportunity for commission staff to talk to local physicians, citizens, and county officials about other infectious diseases and the broader principles of public health. Organisers mobilised the press, businesses, schools and churches to encourage public participation in the campaign. In short, as Rose reported in the fourth annual report of the IHC: "The relief and control of this one disease is an object lesson in the relief and control of disease in general. This one is simple and tangible; the common man can easily understand what it is, and what it means to him as a menace to his health and to his earning power; he knows it [s] whole story; he knows its simple treatment and its one simple preventive measure. Having seen this one disease brought under control and having had the work of the effort brought home to him, he is prepared to give heed when spoken to about the control of diseases that are less simple and less tangible."
Thus the treatment of hookworm not only cured the patient, it also secured the cooperation of the people in bringing this disease and other preventable diseases under control.
Wickliffe Rose had been the architect and organisational genius behind the campaign in the American South. When he was appointed director of the IHC, he immediately began to study the prevalence of hookworm in the tropical regions of the world and concluded that targeted eradication campaigns would be a perfect way to introduce the new foundation and the concept of public health to the world. In July 1913, only months after the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation, the trustees authorised Rose to lead an international campaign against hookworm. He recommended surveys and eradication campaigns in Latin America, "The Orient" and the colonies of Britain, France and the Netherlands _ a tropical region encircling the equator that was home to a billion people. Victor Heiser and King Vajiravudh brought Rose's global strategy to Siam.
This is the first excerpt from Innovative Partners: The Rockefeller Foundation and Thailand, a newly published book, which will be serialised monthly in the Bangkok Post in order to highlight historic photos drawn from the Rockefeller Archive Centre in New York. These have been interwoven with text to create a rich narrative detailing aspects of Thailand's development over the past century.
The book can be downloaded at http://centennial.rockefellerfoundation.org/publications
Book launch today at Siam Discovery
The official launch of the book Innovative Partners: The Rockefeller Foundation And Thailand will take place today at the Siam Discovery Centre (ground floor) at 11am. It will be held in tandem with the opening of a related photo exhibition.
The stories and rare photos that serve as the centrepiece of the exhibition from New York's Rockefeller Archive Centre create a rich narrative on Thailand's development from 1915 _ when the foundation first came to Thailand _ right up to the present day. Visitors to the exhibition and readers of the book will get an inside view of the deeply intertwined relationships that developed between the Rockefeller Foundation and members of the Thai royal family and the government and people of Thailand.
Both book and exhibition highlight the unique relationship between the foundation and HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, the US-educated father of HM the King and a qualified medical doctor, who facilitated an agreement with the foundation that helped set the stage for many of its current initiatives in Thailand.
Dr Victor Heiser, left, the Rockefeller Foundation’s representative, and Siamese officials.