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Missionary physician Franklin Fowler dies at 100

[SLIDESHOW=46077,46079]RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Franklin T. Fowler, the first medical consultant for Southern Baptists’ Foreign Mission Board, died Sept. 10 in Richmond, Va., at age 100.

Fowler began serving at the board (now International Mission Board) in 1960 after he and his wife Dorcas had been missionaries in Paraguay and Mexico.

In Paraguay, Fowler founded a Baptist hospital in Asuncion, which continues today under Paraguayan leadership as the Baptist Medical Center, which treats 16,000 patients per month in the nation’s capital.

Fowler grew up in Argentina as the child of missionary parents, committing his life to Christ at age 10. After college at Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn., he went to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville where, with the start of World War II, he and his class earned their medical degrees a few months earlier than planned.

Fowler served in combat in France, Luxembourg and Germany as a doctor with the semi-mobile 110th Evacuation Hospital. After returning from the war, he married Dorcas, a registered nurse, in August 1946. She died in June of this year at age 96.

The Fowlers had lived at the Lakewood retirement community in Richmond since 1987, where they started a worship service for health care residents and Fowler wrote a 398-page autobiography, “From There to Here: The Story of a Missionary Child” available on Amazon. Proceeds from Fowler’s book of his missions experiences, poetry and painting go to the VBH Foundation of LifeSpire (formerly Virginia Baptist Homes) to assist residents who outlive their financial resources.

Jerry Rankin, who became IMB president in 1993, and his wife Bobbye were among the hundreds of missionary candidates processed by Fowler in his work as the mission board’s medical consultant.

“He put us through the paces of all the exams for qualifying health-wise” for missionary service, Rankin said of their 1970 appointment to Indonesia.

“We got to know him through some of his travels visiting the mission hospitals in our area of the world,” said Rankin, who retired as IMB president in 2010. “We always appreciated his humor, his sensitivity. He was always personally interested in us as missionaries, not just with medical concerns.”

Fowler’s influence on medical missions is exemplified in the counsel he gave Rebekah Naylor who spent 35 years in India as a missionary surgeon at the Bangalore Baptist Hospital.

As recounted by Naylor, “When I approached the time of appointment by the Foreign Mission Board in response to God’s call to be a medical missionary, it was Dr. Franklin Fowler who came to Dallas to decide with me where I would serve. He cheerfully asked that I go to India as a surgeon at the Bangalore Baptist Hospital then under construction.

“In my early years in India, Dr. Fowler made several visits both to evaluate the work and to provide much encouragement,” said Naylor, now a global health consultant for the Southern Baptist humanitarian organization Baptist Global Response. “He was a leader in medical missions both overseas and among Southern Baptists here at home.”

Fowler and his wife of 70 years are survived by four children, Franklin Timothy Fowler, James Cate Fowler II, Lindon Fowler Rice and Richard Phillip Fowler; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Starting a hospital

Appointed as Southern Baptist missionaries in 1947, the Fowlers went to Paraguay, tasked to build a hospital.

Two years later, after surveying the needs, deciding on a location and purchasing property, Fowler sent a cable to the FMB: “HOW DO YOU BUILD A HOSPITAL?” He soon received a simple reply from Everett Gill, the mission board’s area secretary for the Americas: “WE ARE PRAYING FOR YOU.”

In an interview before his 100th birthday in March, Fowler said the hospital in Paraguay was among his most satisfying accomplishments. In 1995, the Baptist Medical Center expanded to include a heart institute, and the next year doctors there performed Paraguay’s first successful heart transplant.

The Fowlers left Paraguay in 1956 to accept an assignment in Mexico then moved to Richmond in 1960 where he served on the mission board’s home office staff. Dorcas, meanwhile, worked as director of Johnston-Willis Hospital’s nursing school until it closed. During his tenure at the FMB, Fowler started the Baptist Medical/Dental Fellowship, which remains active today.

Randy Sprinkle, who served in Ethiopia, Botswana and Lesotho, was among hundreds of missionaries who interacted with Fowler about their medical concerns.

“In 1979 we were at our lowest after an extremely difficult first term of missionary service in Ethiopia that included war, famine and, most personally, my wife Nancy developing lupus,” Sprinkle told Baptist Press. “We had been home on an extended medical leave and were facing the end of our missionary careers as Dr. Fowler would not approve a medical clearance for us even though we both had clearly testified to him and our area leadership that God’s direction was to return and trust Him to provide.

“After waiting for the mission board to accept our involuntary resignations, we called our area director and he said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but your resignation was not acted upon by the board. Let me transfer you to the medical office.’ After a couple of rings, Dr. Fowler himself answered. I identified myself and before I could go further, he said, ‘Randy, what a pleasant surprise. I just signed your medical clearances. You can return to Africa.’ And we did for 10 more years of service.”

Sprinkle, who later led the mission board’s International Prayer Strategy Office, noted, “We knew Dr. Fowler as a medical professional who made hard, sometimes painful decisions that affected missionary lives but at his core he was a missionary himself who listened to and obeyed God.”

‘Healer & spiritual witness’

In March, the Fowlers were asked how long they’d been married. They exchanged a puzzled glance and then laughed.

“We don’t remember!” Dorcas said. “Forever.”

Fowler reached for his Bible, opened the front cover and pulled out a photo of Dorcas as a young woman. He didn’t say much, but his message was clear: His God and his wife were his two most important relationships.

Dorcas was born in Oklahoma City and received a bachelor of arts degree from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.; a nursing degree from St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.; and a master of arts degree from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va.

Even at the end of her life, Dorcas faithfully cared for her husband. As her life ebbed away, Fowler sat quietly, holding her hand.

Fowler’s autobiography tells of their first trip to Paraguay by boat when Dorcas was eight months pregnant with their oldest child.

“This proved to be a bad time for Dorcas to travel,” Fowler wrote. “Eight months pregnant, the rolling of the ship kept her in her bunk most of the way. I’m afraid this was not a pleasant Caribbean and South American cruise for her.”

A few weeks later, she delivered their oldest son in a clinic in Asunción, Paraguay — without anesthesia.

“I asked Dr. Aguire later why he did not use anesthesia,” Fowler wrote. “He said that if he lost a Paraguayan patient, it would be considered the will of God, but if he lost an American patient or the baby, his reputation would be ruined, thus he took no risks. Dorcas wished he had taken a little more risk!”

Fowler’s family, in his newspaper obituary, wrote, “Our words are wholly inadequate to describe what he meant to us. A man of great intellect and personal strength, he was physician, missionary, minister, soldier, teacher, writer, painter, poet and faithful servant to the Lord. His life was an example of devotion and he demonstrated God’s love to people he encountered around the world. He touched untold lives as a healer and spiritual witness. His was an example of a life well-lived in service to the greater good.”

    About the Author

  • Ann Lovell & Art Toalston

    Ann Lovell is corporate director of communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes, which published Franklin Fowler’s book, “From There to Here: The Story of a Missionary Child.” Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press.

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