Hawaiian culture had a well-established class of expert priestly physicians known as kāhuna. There were specialists among the kāhuna.
Diagnosticians, kāhuna hāhā, were able to arrive at diagnoses through palpation, observation and communication with the gods.
The kāhuna lā‘au lapa‘au were knowledgeable about botanical medicines. The kāhuna pā‘ao‘ao cared for children, and the kāhuna ho‘ohānau keiki cared for expectant mothers. (Young)
The first Western physicians to arrive in Hawai‘i were ships’ surgeons. On board Captain James Cooks’ HMS Resolution and Discovery in 1778 were 8. On board the HMS Resolution were surgeon Dr. William Anderson and surgeon’s mate Dr. David Samwell. On board the HMS Discovery were surgeon Dr. John Law and surgeon’s mate Dr. William Ellis.
Dr. Anderson, along with the captain of the HMS Discovery, Lt. Charles Clerke, and some of the sailors, already had advanced tuberculosis (and they likely introduced that disease at Waimea and 10 months later at Kealakekua).
Anderson died on August 3, 1779, from tuberculosis after the expedition departed from Kealakekua. He was buried at sea, and Dr. David Samwell was appointed to the position of surgeon on the HMS Resolution.
Later, a Spaniard, Francisco de Paula Marín, settled in the islands sometime around 1793 and effectively became the first resident Western Physician. However, there is some doubt as to whether or not he was a trained doctor.
Another early physician in Hawai‘i was Juan Elliott de Castro, described as surgeon to King Kamehameha. He may have settled in the islands as early as 1811 and had a family here. De Castro was the attending physician at the time of Kamehameha’s death in 1819.
Dr. Meredith Gairdner, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, was with the Hudson’s Bay Company and was stationed on the Columbia River. Dr. Gairdner came to the islands in about 1834, but his health failed, and he died on March 26, 1837, in
Almost 30 years after Marín settled in Hawai‘i, other Western physicians arrived under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).
Dr. Thomas Holman, Hawai‘i’s first missionary doctor, and his wife Lucia arrived with the Pioneer Company of missionaries in Hawai‘i on April 4, 1820. (Young)
On April 11, King Kamehameha II gave the missionaries permission to stay. However, “The King gives orders that Dr. H(olman) and our teacher must land at Kiarooah – the village where he now resides, and the rest of the family may go to Oahhoo, or Wahhoo.”
“(H)e wanted the Dr. to stay with them, as they had no Physician and appeared much pleased that one had come; as to pulla-pulla (learning), they knew nothing about it. Consequently it was agreed that Dr. H. & Mr. Thurston should stay with the King and the rest of the family go to Oahhoo.” (Lucia Ruggles Holman) The Holman’s left in 1821.
The second missionary physician to come to Hawai‘i was Dr. Abraham Blatchley, with the Second Company, in 1823. Dr. Blatchley’s services were in great demand, and urgent requests came from every island in Hawai‘i.
His “usual” practice territory covered an area of 200 miles on Hawai‘i Island. Often his wife would accompany him on service calls. He was the attending physician when Queen Keōpūolani passed away in Lāhaina, Maui.
Within three years, he was so overworked that he submitted a request to be released from his duties as a missionary physician. This request was rejected, but due to his deteriorating health, he left Hawai‘i in November of 1826.
The third missionary physician to come to Hawai‘i, Dr. Gerritt P. Judd. He arrived in Hawai‘i with the Third Company of missionaries in 1828 and served the ABCFM for 14 years until 1842, when he resigned to enter the service of King Kamehameha III.
Judd had published the first medical textbook in 1838, Anatomia, the only medical textbook written in the Hawaiian language and taught basic anatomy to Hawaiians enrolled at the Mission Seminary (Lahainaluna.)
Later, Judd formed the Islands’ first modern medical school. “On the 9th of November, 1870, he opened a school with ten pupils.” (The Friend, July 1, 1871) The school ended on October 2, 1872, when Laura Fish Judd (Dr Judd’s wife) died.
Judd recommended to the Board of Health that all 10 students be certified and licensed medical physicians. The licenses were issued on October 14, 1872. (Mission Houses)
Dwight Baldwin arrived with the Fourth Company of missionaries in 1831. However, his lack of credentials led the Hawai‘i Medical Society to refuse him a license even though he practiced for 27 years as capably as any of his peers.
Dartmouth Medical College later awarded him an honorary degree in medicine, and he was eventually granted a license to practice in Hawai‘i.
Alonzo Chapin, MD, arrived with the Fifth Company of missionaries in 1832. He assisted Dr. G. P. Judd in providing medical services throughout the islands, mainly on Kauai and Maui. His wife suffered declining health, and they both returned to America in 1835.
Thomas Lafon, MD, arrived with the Eighth Company of missionaries in 1837 and was assigned to Kauai. He was stationed at Kōloa and became the first resident physician for that island.
Dr. Lafon was the first of the sugar plantation doctors, arrangements having been made with the Kōloa Sugar Plantation to care for plantation workers. Dr. Lafon was a staunch abolitionist and opposed the church’s receiving any contributions from slaveowners. He returned to America in 1842.
Seth Lathrop Andrews, MD, in the eighth company of missionaries, arrived with his wife in 1837. In 1852, Dr. Andrews requested
release as a medical missionary and returned to America.
James William Smith, MD, was a member of the Tenth Company of missionaries, arriving in Hawai‘i in 1842. He was assigned to the island of Kauai. In July 1854, Dr. Smith was ordained to the ministry. He served as pastor until 1860, when the ABCFM decided to place the churches under the charge of native ministers and Dr. Smith resigned.
Charles Hinkley Wetmore, MD, arrived with the Twelfth Company of missionaries in 1848. His main responsibility was to care for the families of missionaries. The relatively few deaths from the smallpox epidemic of 1853 in Hilo was due to his diligent immunization work.
He opened the first drugstore in Hilo. His daughter, Frances Matilda, studied medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and was the first female physician in Hawai‘i.
Sarah Eliza Pierce Emerson was another early female physician who practiced in the islands. She was born in Massachusetts in 1855, came to Hawai‘i as a young child, and married the renowned missionary descendant, Civil War veteran, and physician Nathaniel Bright Emerson. She was trained as a homeopathic physician. (Young) (Most information here is from Young.)