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Healing Gwen G. Mellon

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Gwen Grant Mellon was the dynamic woman behind the reluctant heir, his equal partner in their prosperous Arizona cattle ranch and in their amazingly sudden decision to quit it and devote the rest of their lives and fortune to the people of rural Haiti, co-founding the world-renowned Albert Schweitzer Hospital there.

Fair, willowy and regal, Gwen Grant was born into a genteel New York family that divided its time between Manhattan and idyllic summers upstate on the Hudson in Geneva. She was educated at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and graduated from Smith College in 1934 -- an excellent equestrienne, adventurous lover of the outdoors and independent-minded maverick, not unlike Larimer Mellon.

Mellon, for his part, had reluctantly joined the family banking and Gulf Oil concerns, working in the sales department for two gloomy years. To escape the confinement of his white-collar job, his first marriage and Pittsburgh, he took off and bought a ranch in Pecos County, Ariz., becoming a dawn-to-dusk working cowboy, building fences, riding herd and doing his own branding.

Gwen Grant had her own confinement and first marriage to escape. When John Rawson, by whom she had three children, informed her he was leaving them behind to take a European job, she replied that she'd be leaving, too.

"I told him, 'I'm going to make myself a new life -- I'm leaving,'" she recalled. "He said, 'You wouldn't dare.' I said, 'Yes, I would dare.' I don't know how I had the nerve, with three kids and no job. But I went out West."
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She was a 37-year-old divorcee, supporting herself and three youngsters by working on an Arizona dude ranch, when she and Mellon met in 1945. They fell in love and were married on Feb. 2, 1946, in Wilton, Conn., then returned west and settled into a comfortable ranch life, where it was not uncommon for Mellon and his boys to brand 250 cattle in a day -- a good life, but not wholly fulfilling.

Mellon himself didn't quite realize that until he read a 1947 Life magazine article on Albert Schweitzer's hospital in Gabon.

Mrs. Mellon was in the act of hanging some new curtains when her new husband informed her of a momentous new mission that would radically alter their lives. "He blurted it out: 'I think I'll become a doctor and practice in the undeveloped world.' And I said: 'So that's what's been on your mind lately. You're right, we don't want to sit around looking at the damn cows all our lives.'"

Both enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans. During Mrs. Mellon's medical studies, she dissected mosquitoes for an experimental syphilis treatment program and was trained in malaria control and tropical entomology at Charity Hospital, which was then trying out induced malaria therapy to treat mental illness resulting from syphilis.

Together, they decided to build their hospital in the rural midsection of Haiti, 90 rugged miles northwest of Port-au-Prince in an Artibonite Valley village called Deschapelles.

A healthy ratio of doctors to population is 1 to 2,000. In the Artibonite -- a 600-square-mile area with 185,000 people -- there was not a single doctor in private practice.

Legal, financial and logistical details had to be worked out, and the legwork was left to Mrs. Mellon. The Haitian government was to grant the rent-free site and 15 residential outbuildings on Standard Fruit's former banana plantation at Deschapelles, plus water rights, tax exemptions for equipment and supplies and a 100-acre farm. But the agreement drafted by the Haitians contained a 25-year limitation. Mellon dispatched his wife to Haiti to change it.

Many wives of that day might have been daunted by the prospect of negotiating with the head of a foreign country, but Mrs. Mellon was not among them.

Armed with Dr. Mellon's instructions, she went to Port-au-Prince to tell President Paul Magloire the 25-year restriction had to go -- and came away with the crucial concessions they needed.

While her husband finished med school, Mrs. Mellon almost single-handedly supervised construction of l'Hopital Albert Schweitzer, which opened June 26, 1956.

Certain roles as "enforcer" fell to Mrs. Mellon. Then and now, many called it "l'Hopital de Mme. Mellon" (Madame Mellon's hospital) because it was she who sat out front every day, recording the patients' names and collecting the fees.

The cost of being seen in the clinic -- including examination, lab work, medication and food -- was two gourdes (about 40 cents). It was hard for many to pay. Often a bag of rice or fruit was accepted instead of money. But payment was required on the theory that anything free is not highly valued -- in Haiti or anywhere else.

Mrs. Mellon subsequently helped initiate a vast array of HAS Community Development programs on the hospital campus and at the HAS outreach centers, where literacy, health, sewing, carpentry, homemaking and child care were taught. She was intimately involved in the dozens of sanitation and water projects her husband brought to fruition for the Artibonite Valley over the next 30 years.

Shortly before he died in 1989, Mellon named her as his successor as president of the Grant Foundation and effective head of l'Hopital Schweitzer.

In a country with such terrible overpopulation, disease and high infant mortality rate -- 50 percent -- she was once asked, did she ever get discouraged?

"Neither of us ever was," Mrs. Mellon replied. "We had many disappointments, but we always could think of something else to be done and we did it and it made a difference. We were more fortunate than a poor person sitting in his house with no food. There's not much he can do. For us, it was different. We could try another program, ask someone else for help -- do something."

Every Sunday she would visit and chat with every patient in the hospital, including those who lined the hallways in benches or cots or gurneys.

It meant an enormous amount to the Haitians.

Mrs. Mellon's wry, piquant autobiography "My Road to Deschapelles" was published in 1997.

Ian Rawson, a son of Mrs. Mellon by her first husband, was just 10 when he learned of his mother's intention to start the hospital with his stepfather.

"We had to learn, as children, that we had to share them as parents with other people -- people who relied on them for strength and inspiration," Rawson, of Squirrel Hill, said yesterday. "We learned to see [our mother] as something other than a mother, but as a role model as well."

Mrs. Mellon, widow of Dr. William Larimer Mellon Jr., died [November 29, 2000] in Miami at 89 of complications following hip surgery. She remained the hospital's active leader and most elegant, eloquent spokesperson to the end.

[Text taken from post-gazette.com on December 9, 2014]

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