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Pioneer missionary doctor Wana Ann Fort dies

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Missionary doctor Wana Ann Gibson Fort, 91, died Aug. 31 in Baton Rouge, La.

Fort and her husband, the late Milton “Giles” Fort Jr., served with the then-called Foreign Mission Board as pioneer missionary doctors at Sanyati Baptist Hospital in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). At this hospital, Fort and her husband helped launch a spiritual awakening through medical missions.

The Forts, appointed as missionaries in 1952, led countless patients to Christ.

“We were committed to being God’s hands of mercy and healing to souls and bodies,” she once said.

She and her husband raised five sons in Zimbabwe. Three have served or continue to serve as missionaries with the International Mission Board. Two of the Forts’ sons are medical doctors.

“Mom lived out the reality of her faith,” said Gordon Fort, one of Wana Ann’s sons and IMB senior ambassador. “As wife, momma, teacher, doctor, women’s worker, and serving missions support functions, she demonstrated what it means to live a life of obedience to the Master. It has been our incredible privilege to have been a part of her life’s journey.”

During the Forts’ missionary service in Africa, the Shona people named Fort “Mai Chiremba,” meaning “Mother Doctor.” She led Chief Whozhele, the area leader at Sanyati, to faith in Jesus Christ after he was her patient.

Fort was one of the first people that missionary Tim Cearley met when he arrived to serve in Rhodesia in 1976. Cearley now serves as IMB affinity group strategy leader for Sub-Saharan African peoples.

“Her big smile and excitement about young people joining the [missionary] force, as well as her love for discipling African people, was an inspiration to me after [her] over 25 years on the field,” he said.

When Cearley and his wife returned to Africa as career missionaries in 1983, Wana Ann and Giles welcomed them into their home. From the Forts, the Cearleys learned a passion for language, culture and, most importantly, “a desire for people to come to know the Lord.” Cearley also noted that Fort was active in working with and discipling women.

“It’s impossible to think about Wana Ann without thinking of their home in Sanyati, where they served as medical doctors,” he said. “The sons they raised in that place have also had a huge impact on Africa. I’m thankful for the years of knowing Wana Ann on the field, and since her retirement. She’s had an amazing life.”

Fort served as a pediatrician at Sanyati until 1978. When the family moved to Harare (formerly Salisbury), Zimbabwe, she ministered in the church and at home. She also served as mission financial administrator and as treasurer.

“When my youngest brother Grady was born with Down syndrome, it was Mom’s skills as a pediatrician in caring for his special needs that allowed them to stay on the field and continue their missionary service,” Gordon Fort said. “The fact that Grady is alive today at 54 and thriving is a tribute to her medical gifts.”

The Forts retired from missionary service in September 1988 after nearly 36 years with IMB.

Wana Ann Fort wrote an autobiography of her years as a missionary doctor, “A Thousand Times Yes,” from New Hope Publishers.

“Way more than once we were asked, ‘Do you really like living in Africa?'” she said in the book. “I did not have to think about my answer. It was always a thousand times, ‘Yes!'”

About her call to missions to this remote area, Fort wrote, “I came to the place in prayer that I could tell the Lord this was impossible for me to do, but I would commit my way to Him, trusting in Him to bring it all to pass for His honor. How marvelous it is that God knows the best way for His children!”

Fort was born June 21, 1924, in Harrisonburg, La., and was the oldest of seven girls. She accepted Jesus Christ as her Savior at age 12.

Throughout her childhood, she was involved in Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) educational programs, where she developed a love for international missions.

Fort attended Louisiana Tech University during World War II; in fact, during her first semester, Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941.

While attending a Baptist Student Union conference at Ridgecrest, a LifeWay Conference Center in North Carolina, Fort dedicated her life to world missions and planned to be a missionary doctor.

During her college years, she met her husband, Giles, of Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas A&M University and planned to attend medical college. After completing service in the Navy, he also intended to become a missionary doctor. Wana Ann Fort graduated from Louisiana Tech in the fall of 1944, summa cum laude.

Giles and Wana Ann were married on June 14, 1946, in Harrisonburg, and both attended Baylor College of Medicine.  

Wana Ann Fort graduated with honors from Baylor College of Medicine in 1949, one of three women in a class of 62 graduates. She worked as a doctor in pediatrics at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston, Texas.
Fort was a lifelong member of WMU, and a member of Parkview Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

Her survivors include five sons: Giles Fort III, M.D., of Louisiana, David Fort, M.D., West Africa, Gordon Fort, Virginia, Gregg Fort, Zimbabwe, and Grady Fort, Louisiana; four daughters-in-law; 14 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; four sisters and two brothers-in-law: Jane Noonan, of Florida, Polly and Don Hamilton, Oklahoma, Evelyn and Wayne McDonald, South Carolina, and Rose Ellzey, Louisiana; and nieces and nephews.

Nearly 250 cumulative years of missionary service are represented in the Fort family.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering through a Southern Baptist church or online.

Visitation will be held at Greenoaks Funeral Home in Baton Rouge on Tuesday (Sept. 1), from 6-9 p.m. A memorial service will be held at Parkview Baptist Church, 11795 Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 2). A graveside service will be held at Louisiana National Cemetery at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

    About the Author

  • Laura Fielding