The Search For Ella Grace Brown Burdick

The Search For Ella Grace Brown Burdick

Dec 28, 2015

From a shrouded mother to a fist at her chin: The Search for Ella Grace Brown Burdick

Janet Thorngate

The original question was broader: Who were Dr. and Mrs. Alfred S. Burdick? The endowment in their name has supported the bulk of the Historical Society’s work for the past fifty years — and continues to provide half of the income in our current budget. The answer to the question also proved to be much broader. Only about one-quarter of the Burdicks’ contributions to Seventh Day Baptist ministries supported the historical work. Income from the endowments benefits missions, ministerial education, and a wide variety of church and denominational projects, thousands of dollars’ worth annually.


Ella Grace Brown (Burdick)#2


Identifying Dr. Alfred Stephen Burdick (1867-1933) did not prove to be difficult. An internet search turned up an impressive biographical sketch published in the History of Medicine and Surgery and Physicians and Surgeons of Chicago eleven years before his death.1 He was a practicing physician, medical school professor, editor of medical journals, pharmaceutical researcher, and ultimately President of Abbott Laboratories, a leading pharmaceutical company known worldwide. Tracking down his wife was the challenge. Like most women of her time, she was known publicly by her husband’s name: Mrs. Alfred S. Burdick. Yet the generous bequests and endowments came through her estate. It was valued at over two million dollars.2


Mrs. Alfred S. Burdick #3

Ironically, no obituary appeared in the Sabbath Recorder for Ella Grace Brown Burdick (1870-1960). She was ninety years old and seemingly forgotten. The clue to learning something personal about this woman, and about her husband as a person, had appeared in a tribute to her husband soon after his death in 1933. It was submitted to the Recorder from China by Dr. Rosa Palmborg, who served in the Seventh Day Baptist mission there for forty-six years from 1894 to 1940. After quoting from a long tribute to Dr. Burdick published in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, Dr. Palmborg said, “I have known him and his dear wife since the time when she and I were in district school together, when his kindly, and perhaps I should say saintly, father was my pastor.”3

The district school Ella Burdick and Rosa Palmborg had attended together was in West Hallock, Illinois (near Peoria). Rosa’s family had emigrated there from Sweden in 1873 when Rosa was six years old. Ella’s parents, Rosaline and Harvey S. Brown, from Berlin, New York, had moved there in 1858, eight years after the West Hallock (Southampton) Seventh Day Baptist church was organized. Rev. Stephen Burdick, long active in denominational life in Central New York, became the pastor in West Hallock sometime in the 1880s during which time Rosa Palmborg became “convinced of the Sabbath and joined the church there.”4 The pastor’s son Alfred received degrees from Alfred University (1886 at age 19) and Rush Medical College in Chicago (two years later). Ella’s was a Normal School education preparing her to teach in Illinois. They were married in West Hallock in 1891 and he began practice in nearby Dunlap. Following a time in Florida because of Ella’s health, they returned to Chicago where they moved their membership to the Chicago SDB Church5 and he began practice in Hinsdale and teaching at Illinois Medical College. Meanwhile, Rosa Palmborg obtained her medical education in New York City, immediately sailed to China, and began a fifty-year correspondence with Ella reporting on her work in the SDB mission. Upon Rosa’s forced return from China during World War II, Ella arranged for publication of Rosa’s China Letters in 1943.6 Although Ella’s side of the correspondence is not included, Rosa’s replies document the Burdicks’ genuine interest and support in many forms from sending her medical journals and medicine for the hospital to gifts for her personal needs and money to support her work with individual Chinese families. They provided the money to build the church in Liu-ho with rooms behind for Rosa’s industrial school where she taught Chinese women to read and to support themselves and the mission through skilled sewing projects, arranging for their sale in China and the USA. Ella, along with other American friends, took orders and distributed the goods. The Liu-ho church was dedicated in 1928 as the Stephen Burdick Memorial Chapel in tribute to Dr. Burdick’s father, Rosa’s former pastor.7 The Burdicks assisted in educating several Chinese as well as many American students in the U.S. They provided money for missionaries to return to the U.S. in times of political crisis or for needed furloughs. Ella took care of Rosa’s adopted Chinese daughter, Eling, when Rosa returned for her own surgery.


Alfred S. Burdick

Alfred S. Burdick


The medical journal tribute to Dr. Burdick that Rosa sent to the Recorder described him thus:

An omnivorous reader, a studious artist, and a wonderful

listener, Doctor Burdick accumulated an immense fund

of knowledge about men and things which, with his keen

vision, sound sense, unfailing kindness, unfaltering probity

and personal modesty, combined to make him one of the

leaders in his field, to whom all listened with respectful

attention. It is rare that a physician achieves such marked

distinction in several fields of activity and with it the

devotion and affection of all who have been associated with

him…whose passing is far more than a merely personal

loss to those who knew him.8

In Dr. Palmborg’s own tribute to the lifetime friendship she said, “I have come to appreciate more and more their kindness, loyalty, and generosity to all their old friends as well as a host of new ones…. They have been interested always in every helpful work, and evidently perfectly united in their plans and cares for others and for each other.”9

Sadly, I discovered that our archives contain no photos of the Burdicks. An Internet search turned up several of Alfred but only two of Ella (see page 16). The first is a baby picture labeled “mother under a shroud,” the child in billowy white dress being propped up by an invisible black-draped adult. The note on the back of the photo, taken by Coles of Peoria, did verify her birth date. The other shows Mrs. Alfred S. Burdick among honored guests at Abbott Memorial Hall dedication luncheon, University of Chicago, 1940. That was seven years after Alfred’s death and soon after that of her own mother whom she had cared for until she died at age ninety-five. Fortunately, as the photo was snapped, the man seated by her at the elegant formal table had not raised the salt and pepper shakers completely in front of her face, so we have this one peak at Ella Burdick as an adult.

Upon news of Ella’s death, Evalois St. John, Historical Society Librarian, recalled her visit to the Society in 1938: “She was interested in each and every item and talked enthusiastically of the Society’s future.” The actual amount of the Burdick endowment earmarked for the Historical Society totaled $155,000, received between 1962 and 1966. However, Ella had responded to the first Historical Society call for capital funds with $1,000 in 1949 and followed that up with $1,000 a year to the general fund until her death eleven years later. An additional $10,000 bequest became the Society’s Publishing Fund which supported printing of Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America, Volume 3, in 1972.10

Although Dr. Alfred and Ella Burdick had no children of their own, the blessings of their quiet, humble generosity continue to touch many lives. In this our 100th year, the Historical Society invites today’s Seventh Day Baptists to extend their blessings by contributing to the new Centennial Fund endowment.

Post Script: In 2010 Google Books published a reproduction of Alfred Stephen Burdick’s 1902 book The Standard Medical Manual: A Handbook of Practical Medicine. It is available in paperback, full-color cover, for $62.75.

Author note: Janet Thorngate is president of the SDB Historical Society and a member of the Salem, WV, SDB Church.

Photo 1: Ella Grace Brown, 1870.

Photo 2: Mrs. Alfred S. Burdick,

2nd from left, 1940.

Credit: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Photo : Alfred Stephen Burdick, MD

Credit: William Haynes Portrait Collection, Chemical Heritage Foundation

Archives, Philadelphia, PA


1 by Chicago Medical Society, the Biographical Publishing Corp, Chicago,

1922, 432.

2 Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1962, 31. Major beneficiaries of Ella Burdick’s

will besides the SDB Memorial Fund (divided between the Missionary

Society, Historical Society, and Discretionary Fund) were Northwestern

University in Chicago and Salem College (WV), whose portion doubled its

endowment and initiated its most prosperous period (Green and White,

Salem College newspaper, March 1961, 2).

3 Sabbath Recorder, 114/25 (19 June 1933) 581.

4 “Rosa Wilhelmina Palmborg, M.D. (1867-1953), Seventh Day Baptists in

Europe and America, vol. 3, 214.

5 Records of the Chicago SDB Church, 1882-1964, SDBHS archives.

6 China Letters, Plainfield, N.J.: The Recorder Press, 1943. Most information

in this article, not otherwise noted, comes from this source.

7 The chapel and industrial school in Liu-ho were destroyed in 1937 during

the Japanese invasion. When Dr. Palmborg returned, she continued her

work at the main mission compound Shanghai.

8 Sabbath Recorder, 582.

9 Ibid.

10 Data on the Burdick gifts, bequests, and endowments comes from

Historical Society and Memorial Fund annual reports in the Seventh Day

Baptist Yearbook, 1949-2014.

Extend your blessings!

Contribute to the

Centennial Fund Endowment

“financial support for the

preservation and communication

of Seventh Day Baptist History.”

Contact the Historical Society

3120 Kennedy Road

PO Box 1678

Janesville, WI 53547

Phone 608-752-5055


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