Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Susanna Carson Rijnhart

Episode Summary

Susanna Carson Rijnhart (1868-1908) was a Canadian medical doctor and missionary who was the second Western woman known to have visited Tibet. Her adventurous travel took her through trying and tragic circumstances at a time when doing so was decidedly against the norm for her gender.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Our explorer today was a Canadian medical doctor and missionary who was the second Western woman known to have visited Tibet. Her adventurous travel took her through trying and tragic circumstances at a time when doing so was decidedly against the norm for her gender. Let’s talk about Susanna Carson Rijnhart. 

Susanna Carson was born in 1868 in Chatham, Ontario. Even before she started her travels, Susanna, who went by Susie, accomplished a pretty unusual feat for her gender at the time -- at the age of 26 she became a medical doctor, having graduated from Trinity College in Toronto. 

She started practicing medicine and in 1894 met a man by the name of Petrus Rijnhart. Petrus was a former missionary with the China Inland mission who had been forced out of his job and moved to Canada under sketchy circumstances. It’s unclear just how much Susie knew about Petrus’ past. Regardless, the two married in September of 1894.  

By the end of that same year, Petrus and Susie were en route to Tibet as independent missionaries, not associated with any particular church. They traveled using funds they had raised before they left Canada. 

By mid-1895, Susie and Petrus found themselves in Lusar, a small village near one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries called Kumbum. Kumbum was fairly isolated and very large, with about 3,600 monks living there. Susie and Petrus were far from the beaten path for most Western travelers. After a traveling companion parted ways with Susie and Petrus, they were a town away from the nearest missionaries. 

The following year, in 1896, Kumbum was endangered by a nearby revolt. Susie found use for her medical training. She and Petrus tended to the wounded at the monastery and were thereby invited to stay there in safety while the violence ensued. 

Susie and Petrus then moved to a trading town nearby and opened a medical center. They were reliant on the income they brought in for treating medical ailments. Petrus also served as a guide to a traveler named Montagu Sinclair Wellby.

In November 1896, the explorer Sven Hedin passed through their home. He later described Susie as a, “bareheaded young lady wearing spectacles and dressed after the Chinese manner.” He said, “Through her medical knowledge and skill, Mrs. Rijnhart had won several friends among the native population.” 

Susie and Petrus’ goal had been to first learn Tibetan and then to travel to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, which hadn’t been visited by Westerners for around 50 years. In May of 1898, they set off to do just that. 

Susie, Petrus, their nearly one year old son and three local men set off for Lhasa, armed with food supplies for two years and several hundred bibles in Tibetan. The journey required the group to travel through mountain passes at elevations as high as 16,000 ft. 

For two months, their journey went according to plan. Then disaster struck. First, two of their three hired hands abandoned the group. Soon thereafter, five of the group’s animals were stolen. Then suddenly, their child died. 

They eventually got as close as 100 miles away from Lhasa before a Tibetan official insisted that they leave. Their final original hired hand left and Susie and Petrus were left to navigate their way back east solo with the help of three assigned guides from the Tibetan government. 

Once again, the journey was treacherous and difficult. The group was attacked by bandits who injured one of the guides and stole all but three horses. 

The rest of Susie and Petrus’ guides decided they had had enough and Susie and Petrus were truly left alone. They continued onward, without any local guides and without most of their belongings. Then Petrus left Susie to ask for help from some Tibetans camped on the other side of a river and never returned. Susie was absolutely alone, with just a revolver and some silver to her name. 

Still, she made it out. Susie hired guides to help her find her way  and used her revolver to protect herself when needed.  

Eventually, she made it to Kangding, which was then the most remote outpost of Christian missionaries in China. It was November 26, 1898. Susie, frost-bitten and broke, made her way to the outpost of the China Inland Mission. 

In 1900, having had no news of her husband, Susie went home to Canada. She wrote a book about her travels and gave lectures. 

She didn’t stay put for long though. In 1902, Susie returned to China and three years later, married a missionary she had met on her first trip, James Moyes. 

In 1907, the couple returned to Canada. In January 1908, Susie gave birth to a son. A month later, she passed away.

Susie’s work and adventures were exceptional for women at the time, even if her missionary work was not successful.

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. On Sundays, we’re taking a break from our normal episodes to highlight women we’ve previously covered who did amazing things in healthcare. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!