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6245: Gwen Mellon -- obit by Paul Paryski (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
(from The Guardian) (UK)
(16 Dec 00)
Free-spirited American who devoted her life and fortune to the health of
the poor in Haiti
By Paul Paryski
The life of the nurse and philanthropist Gwen Mellon, who has died aged 89,
was proof that, occasionally, the very rich do give it all up to help the
In 1956, with her doctor husband, Larry - and using their own private
fortune - Gwen founded the L'Hopital Albert Schweitzer at Deschapelles, a
remote part of central Haiti. When they arrived in the district, the only
health care was two, small government clinics for 185,000 people.
Since then, the hospital, and its outreach centres, have evolved to provide
a system of care for 2,500 patients a year and 400 outpatients a day - some
of whom arrive on donkeys or bamboo stretchers - as well as offering every
sort of community project through an outreach programme, thus bringing hope
to the poorest of the poor.
Born in Englewood, New Jersey, to an upper-middle class New York family,
Gwen attended a private boarding school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and
graduated in 1934 from Smith College, Massachusetts. High spirited,
beautiful and adventurous, she separated from her first, very conventional,
husband, packed her bags, gathered up her three young children and took a
job on a ranch in Arizona.
There, she met Larry Mellon, another refugee from conventionality and
wealth, and heir to a banking and oil fortune. He had purchased, and
personally ran, a small cattle ranch. They married in 1946.
But the pleasures of working under Arizona's azure skies only partially
satisfied their spirits. Touched by a Life magazine article about Albert
Schweitzer's hospital in west Africa, Larry began corresponding with its
founder. When he told his wife that he was thinking of becoming a doctor
and practising in the developing world, Gwen replied: "You're right, we
don't want to sit around looking at the damn cows all our lives."
Based on Schweitzer's advice and their desire to follow his example, the
Mellons started medical training at Tulane University in New Orleans - he
as a doctor, she as a medical technician and nurse. Their studies finished,
they visited Haiti and located an abandoned banana plantation in
Deschapelles, 90 miles north of the capital, Port au Prince. Struck by both
the poverty and the strength of the Haitian peasants, and Haiti's unique
history and culture, they decided to use Larry's fortune to build a
Gwen charmed General Paul Magloire, then Haiti's president, into granting
them the permanent use of the plantation, and, abandoning their comfortable
life in America, the Mellons moved to Haiti. There, living in adverse and
trying conditions, they built and developed their dream. To have
constructed and run a modern hospital in one of the most rural and
inaccessible sites in one of the world's most impoverished countries was a
After Larry died in 1989, Gwen took over the management of the hospital.
Her office was a table under a mango tree in a courtyard, where she
personally screened and talked with almost all the patients. During the
violent and turbulent political unrest in Haiti, she was an elegant pillar
of strength, calm and sympathy. Even as she grew frail with age, her spirit
and mind remained sharp, as did the wit that sparkled in her striking blue
Last summer she wrote: "I often wonder how it is I am so lucky as to see
the sun rise and look forward to what the day will bring. Since the opening
of the hospital, we have daily been able to do what Dr Mellon and I came to
do - improve the quality of life over the whole district. It is what makes
the hospital unique; respect one for an other, and we will strive to keep
Gwen Mellon possessed that rare combination of courage, spirit,
intelligence, perseverance (I might add inner and outer beauty) and deep
devotion to Haiti and its people. She and her husband's personal fortune
was buried in the rich soil of Deschapelles and grew into a modern miracle.
It was a rare and inspiring adventure. Her autobiography, My Road To
Deschapelles, was published in 1997.
Gwen Mellon was buried in a cardboard box, the way the poorest of the very
poor are buried on Haiti. She is survived by her daughter, Jennifer, and
two sons, Ian and Michael.
• Gwendolyn Grant Mellon, nurse and philanthropist, born July 22 1911; died
November 29 2000